Renewable energy has been of increasing interest as the dwindling supply of easily accessible fossil fuels pushes us toward dirtier sources of oil and natural gas. Researchers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what solar cells and wind turbines are capable of, but the constraints of land and weather limit where vast solar or wind farms can be set up. A company in the UK is hoping to solve that problem by taking to the skies with flying power plants.
UK-based New Wave Energy has spent the last few years developing the technology to produce an army of power-generating drone aircraft. Each 20x20m (65ft) craft would be fitted with four small propellers that keep it aloft, and a large, flat surface covered in solar panels. Turbines will also be fitted to the drone in strategic locations to generate power from wind.
The drones would be capable of flying at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, which puts them outside the realm of most air traffic and far above clouds that can obscure the sun. The propellers would allow the craft to track the course of the sun across the sky to remain in optimal position for as long as possible. At these altitudes, the wind is also more consistent and powerful, which means smaller turbines can be used in place of the giant towers necessary down near the ground.
So this fabulous contraption might be able to get up above the clouds and suck down power, but how does it get that juice down where we need it? Microwaves, of course. Power from the drones could be beamed down as a low-energy microwave and collected by antenna arrays on the ground. These antennas can then be used to turn the electromagnetic radiation into usable DC power.
New Wave Energy’s proposed drone power plants don’t even have to land to refuel themselves. They will supposedly be able to power themselves entirely with the energy generated on-board. Even allowing for that, each drone could produce 50kW of power at the ground-based receiving station. That means several thousand drones would be needed to power a large city of 205,000 homes. The cost of building and deploying the drones will determine whether or not that’s feasible.
These swarms of robotic power plants aren’t just a way to replace the power infrastructure we already have — they could be used to bring power to remote areas with poor service, or to restore power in regions affected by natural disasters. For example, instead of restringing every downed wire after a hurricane, the cloud of flying power plants could just be shifted around to restore service more quickly while things on the ground are fixed up.
The company plans to raise about $ 500,000 on Kickstarter to fund the construction of a prototype for testing and marketing. If this campaign does turn out to be successful, the first flying power plant could be aloft within six months.