Experimental Drone Recharges Without Landing

Imperial College London / YouTube

Imperial College London announced on Thursday that its researchers have created a drone that can recharge without having to land. While this technology is still in its early stages, it could eventually lead to drones that can fly, without having to worry about battery limitations.

The wireless charging tech is based on inductive coupling, which allows two coils to exchange power without being in physical contact, and was demonstrated in a small quadcopter modified to run these experiments. Similar technology can be used to wirelessly charge smartphones, but getting it to work on a moving object is much harder than using it to send power to a device that just sits on whatever surface it’s placed on.

It does have some strict limitations, though. Imperial College London’s Colin Smith said in an article about the wireless charging technology that the drone can only hover about four inches above its power source. But the team is working to increase the system’s range for use in a commercially available product.

“The range is limited by the size and power of the energy transmitter,” one of the project’s leads, Dr. Samer Aldhaher, told Inverse. “We are using magnetic induction to transfer power over a distance. So with a larger transmitting coil, the distance and range that the drone can be charged is increased. We will be developing more demos in the near future, which will have a different set of ranges”

A more capable system could allow drones to fly without ever having to land to recharge. (They would, presumably, still have to land for basic maintenance and storage when they aren’t being used.) This would make them more capable, convenient, and potentially attractive to consumers who want to be able to fly their drones for extended periods. The age of perpetually flying toy drones could soon be upon us.

“There are still a lot more exciting applications that could benefit from using drones,” Aldhaher said. “The short battery life of these typical drones limits the flight time to about 15-20min and therefore prevents the use of drones in some applications. We want to be able to increase that flight by charging the drone’s battery in mid-air, or at least remove the step of having to charge and replace the drone’s battery.”

This would help devices like Amazon’s patented voice-controlled drone and Propel RC’s line of miniature Star Wars replicas. Both are small devices that can be easily transported; a charging system that can also travel could make them that much more appealing.

Wireless charging tech could also help power medical devices, ground-based drones, and basically anything else that runs on batteries. If the current limitations are worked around, it isn’t hard to imagine a future in which very few mobile gadgets have to be plugged into a wall, for hours at a time, just so they can be used for a little while. That’s what these researchers are working towards. Their first commercial product, based on this technology, is expected to be developed within a year.

“The future is exciting, and it’s great to live in a time to witness the development of all these new technologies and be part of it. I would also say that you could expect a wide range of novel and innovative applications, made possible with wireless power transfer technology.