The US military is developing a ground-based laser which can charge drones as they fly and potentially help them stay perpetually in flight.
According to New Scientist, Army engineers working for the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center in Maryland are developing a laser which could fire beams from distances of up to 1600 feet (487 meters) in order to charge photovoltaic cells aboard small drones.
How does it work?
We’ve previously brought you stories how the military can use lasers to shoot drones out of the sky, quite successfully it turns out. The purpose with this laser is quite different. The photovoltaic cells convert the heat from the laser and converts it into electricity. A major challenge of this system is that lasers generate enormous amounts of heat which can cause damage to the drone’s materials. The Army is therefore working on making sure excess heat from the laser will dissipate and the photovoltaic cells are the only part of the drones that comes in contact with the laser.
Drones play many important intelligence gathering roles in the military including conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions and, of course, assassinations. From the military’s point of view: the appeal of a drone that can stay in the air indefinitely is easy to see. Bringing drones back to base to refuel or recharge takes times away from their mission. From a civilian perspective; drones that could fly indefinitely is potentially worrisome. A permanent eye in the sky could have serious privacy and human rights implications.
We’ve written several previous stories highlighting how the major factor holding drone development back is poor battery life. The vast majority of drones, whether commercial or consumer, can fly for less than an hour – most consumer drones stay in the air between 15 minutes and half an hour. Two proposed solutions to this problem are hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-metal batteries. Lasers could represent a new direction for this technology entirely. Whether this method of powering drones would be practical for anything other than military applications is not yet known. One assumes that the laser is fired at the drone intermittently to recharge the cells, rather than constantly. You would also want assurances that the beam was extremely accurate and wouldn’t accidentally blast into the eyes of some pilot.