Energized: New Batteries Could Triple Drone Airtime

With the drone market projected to double to $1.2 billion by 2020, two recent innovations to extend battery life could significantly propel the drone ecosystem forward.

Thanks to a Congressional bill passed earlier this year and a pair of innovations significantly extending battery life, drones are moving from the battlefields to the backyards and airspace of American cities. While the military use of targeted drone airstrikes is well-known, what’s not is their limitations: namely battery life for the small, handheld devices.

One company working on fixing that problem is aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which is tweaking the electric version of its Stalker drone, a 10-foot-wingspan drone that can fly as high as 15,000 feet. The Stalker normally stays in the air for about two hours, but Lockheed Martin has managed to extend its endurance by wirelessly recharging it via laser power, allowing the Stalker to stay in the air up to 48 hours. This could be a huge development, but the long-term potential has yet to be proven in outdoor flights - so far it's only been demonstrated in indoor trials.

Also in the development stage is Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies, Inc., which is working on a kinetic energy composite that turns the interaction of wind pressure and vibrations into an an electrical power energy source and could more than triple battery life for handheld and gliding drones. These small drones - which have wings span of around five feet - have an endurance of only about 45 minutes when fully loaded with munitions, compared to larger drones, which have a battery life of about 14 hours when fully loaded. The company has created an energy harvesting formula that can extend the battery life of a handheld drone to about three hours, and even recharge it in flight. The key is piezoelectric composites, a material which helps convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.

"This vibration is energy," explained Dr. Baruch Pletner, Somatis' chief executive. "It's not a better battery in fact, but it's something that will recharge your battery.

Legalization, Grants and Public Safety Programs 

In February, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, requiring the FAA to ease restrictions and legalize unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace by 2015. A host of industries are poised to take advantage of this change, namely law enforcement, fire departments, surveillance, security, and even data collection and journalism.

 While Congress hashes out the details, the Department of Homeland Security has begun to prep for its Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety program. The DHS has begun testing drones, awarded grants to at least 13 police departments to buy small surveillance drones, and is working to accelerate use by inviting drone manufacturers to Ft. Sill, Okla. to conduct more intricate real-world testing scenarios this October. 

As drone producers like Lockheed Martin and Somatis move from prototype to production within the next few years, battery life will be a key component in making unmanned aerial vehicle use attractive to a range of industries. If and when they get it right, drones will likely become an inherent part of everyday life in the not-to-distant future. When that day comes, our biggest concern may be what detractors are saying now: is drone use a moral dilemma or justified?

Last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped drones could one day see through thick jungle to locate international criminals, like warlord Joseph Kony. That wish may not be far off, as long as the drones have enough battery power to get there.  

Top photo by California National Guard. Bottom photo by US Army/D. Myles Cullen.