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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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...
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.
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