UAV for ag use will be solar powered


During a keynote at the small unmanned systems business expo in San Francisco, Calif., the CEO of Alta Devices, Christopher Norris, explained that small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are no longer constrained to short-range or limited flight times and are now able to fly as long as the sun is shining.

A solar solution for powering UAVs is expected to have tremendous economic value for agricultural, public safety, wildfire mapping, search and rescue, law enforcement, industrial applications, and many others.

In the past, solar solutions weren’t feasible for powering these vehicles because the solar power systems were either too heavy or could not produce enough power for long-range flight, or both. However, a small UAV outfitted with Alta Devices’ mobile power technology can produce enough power, while adding practically no weight, to fly indefinitely under the sun, Norris announced.

Alta Devices manufactures the world’s thinnest, most flexible, and most efficient solar material, the company contends. It can be used on anything that moves, can be carried, or worn, to generate substantial power from light. In the case of a typical small UAV with a nine-foot wingspan, Alta’s material can generate roughly 125W of power and weighs about 125 grams (about 4.5 ounces). In many cases, this is enough power to sustain flight and keep an on-board power source fully charged, the company explained.

Norris said, “A broad range of civil unmanned systems will benefit from extended range and endurance. For example, when a UAV is used to map a wildfire, or on a human search and rescue mission, it is critical to have flight times that are as long as possible.”

And for agricultural use, the ability to extend the range of a UAV and shorten the task of monitoring a large area by avoiding stops to recharge, has significant economic benefit for farm uses.

According to a report published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), precision agriculture and public safety represent more than 90 percent of the potential for civil UAS use and will result in an economic benefit to the United States of $82 billion between 2015 and 2025.

The year 2015 is significant because that is the year anticipated for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve wide-spread private use of UVS. Research and manufacturer of UVS are proceeding in leading up to 2015 as universities recognize the ag potential of UVS. Additionally, some UVS are being flown under hobbyist rules.  

Gretchen West, executive vice president, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said, “Efficiency and endurance are the holy grail for unmanned systems. Enabling all-day flight times for small UAVs will change the game for civil use and represents a significant market opportunity.”