Not only might drones one day be delivering our packages, they also might be delivering our energy. UK-based New Wave Energy wants to deploy a network of drones at a high altitude to harvest solar and wind energy in order to help end dependency on the traditional power grid.
Company founder Michael Burdett, also New Wave Energy’s director, had the idea and vision for these drone power-plant networks about 10 years ago, but the company itself was not founded until March 2012. Since then it has developed the foundational technology to make Burdett’s vision a reality. It is currently seeking funding to take things to the next level. As outlined on the company’s website, New Wave Energy’s vision is to leverage airspace above 50,000 feet for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to harvest wind and solar energy. This altitude was chosen because there “wind patterns are more reliable, solar production is greater, and there is little or no interference from weather patterns,” according to the website. These power-collecting drones can then connect wirelessly to each other, creating a high-altitude power plant for distributing and creating energy.
To take the energy harvested and reuse it on the ground, New Wave plans to install antenna arrays either on land or on offshore installations to receive the electromagnetic waves transmitted from the drones and convert them into energy. “As a high-altitude power plant we aim to construct a large wireless network for full-scale energy generation, creating wireless links and distribution between many smaller power plants,” according to the New Wave Energy website. “This not only adds a large amount of redundancy within the project but also creates power plants, which will be clean and invisible to the naked eye.”
The drones themselves will measure about 65 feet square and have four rotors, as well as multiple wind turbines and a flat base for generating solar power. Not only will the UAVs harvest energy -- about 50 kilowatts -- to be transmitted and reused on the ground, but also power themselves with the energy they create. The company lays out a detailed case on its website for the benefits a power plant in the air would provide, including using land where solar panels would be on the ground for other purposes, and providing an energy supply to remote places -- including disaster sites where the power grid is damaged or fails due to a catastrophic event. “As a remote energy source we can create a rapid supply of energy to remote locations, areas affected by earthquakes, floods, or other natural disasters,” according to the New Wave Energy website. “It is with this kind of application we can not only produce renewable energy on-demand but use it to help saves lives around the world.”
This project will reflect a considerable advancement in technology. Stories of airplanes even maintaining themselves at those altitudes for a day or more make international headlines. To be able to maintain themselves as well as support the weight of transmission equipment and energy collectors will be a giant leap forward.
jahnkwitz, you make a very good point. Wouldn't it be better to have a platform such as a lighter than air craft, which can remain on station and has been proven? The real technology that makes something like this viable is the transmission of power using microwaves or lasers. The choice of a technology to keep the platofrm aloft should be the subject of an engineering trade study, not a business plan item.
Good ideas, naperlou. I know we transmit communication signals via microwave, but wouldn't a useful power source involve intense microwave radiation or lasers? Would this pose a danger to living things and aircraft?
I don't know if it it's sci-fi, but this idea has been out there a while. I remember the design school at Illinois Institute of Technology proposing this idea as far back as 1989. The bad news is that nothing ever came of it; the good news is that no one has been able to eliminate it from consideration in the ensuing 24 years.
Yes, LetoAtreidesil, the concerns you raise also are valid and worrying. It's true this design team has a lot of things to think about to ensure this type of system not only works but is safe. It will be interesting to see how they fare.
Elizabeth, I do think the drone part at high altitudes is possible. I hear that Google has a project in research to make balloons that will tack into the wind with no propulsion power (think of a sailboat) and stay over one spot on earth for the purpose of providing internet access to remote and under developed locations. The part that concerns me about power plants is the idea of microwaves beaming megawatts of energy. Microwaves are absorbed by biological organisms and I don't wish man or beast to wander into a high energy beam orders of magnitude greater than my microwave oven. Lasers present a similar problem. So, then, is there another energy tranfer technology we don't know about? Nicola Tesla was reportedly onto something in energy transfer but big money interests muscled him out.
I believe energy should be free, or nearly so, and that means we need to get past carbon fuels. Let's all think how it can be done.
Also a good point, Lou. I think everyone who commented here is right about some of the technology issues that arise with this sort of deployment, and that perhaps there might be better alteratives. Maybe the team developing this system will also realize this as they are working on this project.
Yes, jhankwitz, I agree that this project is going to take a serious leap in technology. This isn't something that's going to happen tomorrow, but I think it can happen at some point and would have a lot of benefits. I do think a lot about safety concerns, though, and this system better be foolproof before it takes to the air.
In your original post you said "New Wave Energy wants to deploy a network of drones at a high altitude to harvest solar and wind energy". A drone cannot harness wind energy unless it is tethered. Are New Wave claiming to harness wind energy or was this a typo or your part?
Well as I mentioned earlier you cannot harness wind energy with an unthered platform.
Energy can only be extracted by changing the momentum of the airstream which requires a force. An equal and opposite force on the platform will accelerate it until it drifts with the airstream - therefore no steady-state power generation. Maintaining the platform position with the other rotors will consume more power than is generated in the turbines. At best the craft could weave between airstreams of differing velocities and use its own inertia to react against the airstreams although I doubt the 400 square meter flat platform is aerodynamic enough to do this and survive.
The thinking behind this project is flawed on so many levels and yet you are providing media exposure to a company who plans to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise around £300,000 (US$500,000) based on a paper proposal and muddy thinking.
You owe it to your readership to be more discerning.
@FeynmanFan, I agree with your analysis. It's as simple as Newton's Laws of Motion, not to mention entropy. You cannot extract more wind energy than you consume for an untethered system. These drones can't harvest wind energy.
While we're talking about it, has anyone done a study or calculation to see if harvesting wind energy (on the ground) as a major energy source worldwide would slow down the rotation of the earth or affect its tilt on its axis appreciably?
So it seems there is a consensus on the wind turbine technology. I did receive an email from the company founder quite late after I contacted him (and after the story posted) so I can present these comments to him and see what he says. Perhaps he has an explanation for how the turbines might work.
Thank you for your comment and perspective, FeynmanFan. I appreciate your opinion on this story and your informed analysis of the technology presented here. As for the viability of the technology New Wave plans to develop, you would have to contact the company founders themselves and discuss that further with them.
So just to let you know, I have contacted the founder of this company and asked him to take a look at the story and the comments to see if he might explain the business plan/technology a bit better. We didn't manage to speak before the story posted. Perhaps he has some answers for everyone, so let's see if he weighs in. Thanks for making this a lively discussion!
This snippet from Wikipedia should give the development team pause in their consideration of a rotor-powered aircraft at 50,000 feet:
"On June 21, 1972, Jean Boulet of France piloted an Aérospatiale Lamahelicopter to an absolute altitude record of 12,442 metres (40,820 ft). At the extreme altitude the engine flamed out and the helicopter had to be (safely) landed via another record breaker — the longest successful autorotation in history. The helicopter had been stripped of all unnecessary equipment prior to the flight to minimize its weight and the pilot was breathing supplemental oxygen."
In addition to hiring an aeronautical engineer for the team, I also recommend a physicist to explain how you can hover in the wind while simultaneously harvesting the wind and not use more energy than you generate.
Not to be cruel, but I am reminded of the joke about the team that was planning to fly a manned rocket to the sun. When asked about how it would handle the extreme radiation, they replied that they planned to go at night when it was dark...
The concept of geostationary drone platforms is quite interesting. I recall a posting a while back in which some organization was planning to use tethered drones and bring the power down as high voltage in cables. That posting made a lot of sense, since the plan was for all of the wind turbines to be delivering energy, with the whole system flying like a kite, restained to one specific location by the cables serving both as anchors and as power transmission lines.
But if the captured energy were to be put into a directed energy beam that could be rather unsafe for anybody whom the beam happened to hit. And a free-flying platform will shift with the breeze a few times. Given that thye beam would need to be transmitting a whole lot of energy, quite likely in the hundreds of kilowatts, and given that would be concentrated in a fairly small area, any random wandering of the beam could be very lethal, at best. On the other hand it could be a fantastic "directed energy weapon" if it were able to quickly cook enemy troops.
So I would seriously support a wired drone platform, but would consider the wireless platform to be absolutely foolhardy.
Elizabeth, the story was about platforms with multiple wind turbines that could be flown up to the desired altitude by driving the generators like motors, until they reached the higher windstream, at which point they would fly like kites, sort of. The challenge that everybody else was seeing was the insulation between thye conductors in the cables used to bring the power back down to earth. It would be a problem since big conductors are quite heavy, and so the solution would be to utilize much higher voltages. My proposal was to have multiple cables for the power, since the platforms would be quite large. Of course there is a bit of challenge in keeping multiple cables that are 50,000 feet long separated, but it seems like the very best approach.
I will attempt to visit the article in the link.
My first two attempts failed to find it. Google must be blind.
I was doing some calculations. If the conductors were copper, let's say 2.54 cm diameter, the weight of a cable 50,000 ft. long would be nearly 148,000 pounds which means that the tensile strength (50,000 lb./in2) of copper at the top of the connection would be pushed near its limit. Add some strain from wind forces; add some metal fatigue, and the cable would break. Look out below. Silver is even heavier and softer. Feel free to correct my calculations. What advantage would there be to harvest either wind or solar energy at high altitude when we can do it on earth's surface?
78RPM, that is the reason for using really high voltages, because you are correct about the fact that big long wires are really heavy. So instead use thinner wire and much higher voltage. And run those cables from opposite corners maybe a hundred or 200 feet apart, or more. Using really high voltage is the only option that makes sense here.
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