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Drone technology has become an integral part of our day-to-day lives. For that reason, they have really invested money and research in is the drone’s power source.
A drone’s power ability determines manufacturers invest a lot of time and money in research and development: Better cameras and software abilities. Another ares its flight time.
How are drones powered?
Drones are powered in various ways. They include batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, solar energy, combustible engine, tethered cable, laser transmitter, Super/Ultra-Capacitor Hybrids, and wireless charging. Among the various powering options, drone batteries are the most popular source.
This article will look at the various drone-powering options and add more related information to improve your drone flying experience. An ideal power source increases your device’s time in the air.
Table of contents
- How Are Drones Powered?
How Are Drones Powered?
There are various ways of powering a drone, including the following:
Drone batteries are the most popular source of unmanned Aerial Vehicles power source.
The commonly used batteries for most commercial drones are lithium-polymer batteries (LiPos). Sadly, these batteries offer a short flight time of about 20 minutes, depending on the load in your drone.
Even so, LiPo powers more than just drone batteries as they power various other electronics. They’re lightweight, store a large amount of energy, and have a high discharge rate.
The batteries’ storage capacity and power output are ideal for most commercial drones.
On the other hand, LiPo batteries’ short lifespan requires you to charge them often. They have a high chemical sensitivity and, thus, can start a fire if mishandled. Moreover, they consume energy fast.
There are various other drone batteries, and they vary depending on cost, quality, and performance. Other drone batteries include the following:
- Lithium-Thionyl-chloride (Li-SOCl2)
- Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)
- Zinc-Air Batteries (ZABs)
- Nickel Cadmium (NiCd)
- Lithium-Ion (Li-ion)
- Lead Acid (Pb-acid)
- Lithium-air (Li-air)
- Batteries are ideal for small UAVs
- They’re readily available and easy to use.
- Requires little effort to transport and store.
- You can charge them nearly anywhere.
- Makes the refueling of your drone easy.
- They’re more energy efficient than some other power sources.
- Drone batteries have a short lifespan, requiring frequent charging and carrying spare batteries for long distances.
- They’re highly chemical sensitive. Thus, they can explode if mistreated.
- They’re slow to charge, and their energy use-up rate is high.
- Batteries can be relatively costly.
However, researchers are on the ground to find ideal ways of extending the batteries’ longevity. Until they have a breakthrough, battery-powered drones will only fly for a limited time.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells:
Several manufacturers have now produced hydrogen fuel cells for popular commercial UAVs.
The power-dense source of drone energy provides a more extensive time for the device to operate without refueling. Your device can fly for about two hours, unlike a battery-powered one that only takes about 20 minutes.
However, the technology is expensive; the cells are large and require hydrogen tanks for refueling. That creates a more complex system and takes longer to refuel.
The various types of fuel cells include solid acid fuel cells (SAFC), proton-exchange membrane fuel cells, direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC), and electric storage fuel cells (ESFC). Even so, drones often use Hydrogen-fueled cells.
- The efficiency of the fuel cells is 60%, which tells how fast they can change from a fully charged to a depleted state.
- Hydrogen is easy to find in any part of the world: It’s the most abundant chemical on earth.
- Hydrogen fuel cells have no direct pollution: Their by-products are heat and water.
- They’re easy to remove and replace and thus increase efficiency.
- Hydrogen fuel cells offer more flight time than drone batteries.
- The fuel cells are highly reliable if you take proper care of them.
- They’re ideal for low temperatures
- They don’t produce sound.
- Hydrogen cells are cost-inefficient. In addition to the price, storage and distribution can be expensive processes.
- They have storage and transport challenges, requiring specific monitoring like temperature.
- Processing hydrogen may be difficult because it requires water, fossils, and other fuels.
- The heat that the hydrogen fuel cells produce may melt some of the components of your drone.
- The cells are dangerous as hydrogen is odorless, flammable, and harmful to breathe.
- The large size of the cells doesn’t accommodate small drones.
Solar technology is an ideal source of clean energy and offers a very long flight time.
Aerial and ground drones use this energy, either military or commercial. Also, solar panels require enough space for their attachment; hence, the ideal devices are drones with fixed-wing.
The major types of solar systems are:
- Photovoltaic (PV) systems: Capture light using every PV cell in a solar panel.
- Concentrating solar power (CSP) systems: Capture sunlight using mirrors that reflect heat onto receivers.
Although solar cells supply limitless energy, the main challenge for this fuel source is when the sun is insufficient. Also, the panels have significant weight, which many drones may be unable to cope with. It turns out to be tricky because the heavy the drone, the more solar panels it needs for a sufficient power supply.
Initially, a solar-powered drone could only operate for as long as the sun was up after it lights out.
Today, solar-powered hybrid drones operate continuously for up to 25 days without refueling.
The device uses sunlight as a power source during the day, and at night, it switches to solar power stored in onboard batteries during the day.
- Solar-powered drones can fly beyond average altitudes as they have stable and lightweight frames.
- The panels are relatively durable: They can serve for long if well-taken care of.
- Offers an extended flight time, mainly when used with rechargeable batteries.
- Its energy has fewer harmful emissions than power systems that are non-electrical.
- The technology uses readily available renewable energy (sun).
- It’s suitable for almost every kind of climate.
- Solar panels produce no noise.
- Solar panel manufacturers use harmful chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid during production.
- They require an extensive surface to produce sufficient power for a drone.
- Solar technology is expensive even with the yearly price dropping.
- In comparison to other sources of power, the panels are quite weightier.
- They’re more weighty than their alternatives.
- The power source can only function in sunny places.
The power source has many uses and traits that make them ideal for drones: They’re strong, small, lightweight, and have efficient fuel usage.
However, combustible engines aren’t suitable for all drones. This power source isn’t the best unless you have military grade drones or commercial drones.
Moreover, you can use engines with various fuel types like kerosene, petrol, propane, ethanol, and methanol.
You can have one combustion engine to charge your device, a blend of several engines to act as an electric motor’s generator, or an onboard battery pack.
The hybrid drone systems combine the electric motor’s operation with all the gas-powered benefits. Thus, they’re more fuel efficient and gas conservative during short distances and remain within the battery’s energy capacity.
There are four types of combustible engines, including the following:
- Gas/combustion turbine engines: Pressure from the exploding fuel rotate a turbine and produce thrust.
- Piston/reciprocating engines: Use pistons to convert pressure into a rotating motion.
- Rotary engines: The rotor inside the engine expands and contacts the gas by moving from one chamber to another.
- Hybrid engines: Use diesel or gasoline with an electric motor powered by a battery or something similar.
- Combustion engines offer a more extended flight time than drone batteries due to their incredible endurance.
- The required fuel for these engines is readily available and easy to store.
- Re-fueling combustion engines take a short time.
- The engines can withstand harsh conditions.
- They’re small and compact.
- The heavy vibration that the combustible engine causes can negatively affect the camera footage and the drone’s stability.
- The engines pollute the environment by emitting harmful gases like nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2).
- The regular care required by the engine for proper functioning can be expensive.
- The engines can catch fire or even explode if not cooled properly.
- Combustible engine fuel, like gasoline, is expensive.
Tethers are cables with wires transmitting power from its station to an attached device for it to function. As opposed to many other drones, tether-powered drones don’t detach from the ground entirely.
Instead, the cables are specialized to connect the drone to a station on the ground as the UAV flies to its destination. Also, the cable often has a fiber optic cable for data transmission between the station and the drone.
Sadly, the base station and tether limit the drone’s mobility unless the station is put on a vehicle. Even so, a tethered drone has an extended flight time of up to a full day.
The fueling method can be an ideal remedy to the drone battery’s short lifespan challenge.
Usually, this power source works well for underwater remotely piloted vehicles (ROVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
- Tethers don’t depend on wireless data transmission methods. Thus, they ensure you’re communicating with your device throughout the flight.
- Some countries don’t consider tethered drones as free-flying. Hence, they require no registration.
- The cable prevents the drone from flying away whenever the system has a problem.
- Tether-powered drones have a long flight time.
- Tethered drones are reliable and safe to operate.
- Tethered UAVs can follow limited paths when obstacles hinder the cable’s passage.
- Long tethers can be challenging if their release and retraction aren’t automatic.
- Transporting tethered UAVs is more challenging than ferrying other drones.
- Tether-powered drones can’t fly far away depending on the tether’s length.
- Operating tethered drones is more expensive than untethered ones.
The laser power technology is relatively new and only used in specific underwater and aerial vehicle classes. It needs to be powered to turn electricity into a beam.
After the conversion, the laser beam is directed to an underwater or aerial drone.
The device’s receiver looks like an improved photovoltaic (PV) solar panel. Then, the beam is turned into electricity that powers the drone.
Laser-powered drones can remain in the air ‘forever.’ They only need to fly to the power link range to recharge whenever they run out of power.
- The technology is relatively safe for animals and humans because of various safety precautions (advanced safety systems).
- Lasers eliminate possible interferences of radio frequency. Hence, this power source increases reliability between you and your device.
- Laser transmitter offers much more extended flight time than most drones’ average propulsion systems.
- With this technology, you can charge your drone wirelessly from any location with a ground station.
- Laser power saves you the need to land your gadget to replace or recharge a battery.
- Adverse weather affects the lasers’ efficiency negatively. Even worse, such weather can cause it to stop functioning in extreme conditions.
- The beam must connect with the photovoltaic cell to charge, which can be a big challenge for small drones.
- Laser-powered drones have a limited range and must be at a specific distance from the receiver.
- Powerful lasers can slowly heat your drone during the powering process.
- Laser technology has a long way to go in terms of efficiency.
Although batteries can hold much power, they can take a lengthy period to charge fully. On the other hand, capacitors charge quickly but retain a small amount of power.
Super or Ultra-capacitor hybrid drones have come as an ideal remedy. They increase the efficiency and power of Li batteries by integrating the qualities of a lithium battery and a super-fast charging capacitor.
The combination results in a lightweight power source and increased flight time and drone range.
- Ultra-capacitor works excellently in low temperatures.
- It has a simple charging and discharging circuit.
- It has a high charging speed: Almost instant.
- The capacitor has a high discharge ability.
- Super-capacitor has a high power density.
- It offers a long flight time.
- Super-capacitor has low energy density: It has a high self-discharge rate.
What Powers a Military Drone?
Batteries power a military drone. The power source is ideal for all drone types, whether flying in the air, functioning underwater, or operating on the ground. Each battery contains a sequence of chemical processes to turn the chemical into electrical energy.
How Long Can a Drone Fly Without Refueling?
A drone can fly without refueling for more than 30 minutes. However, the flight time applies to gas-powered drones when the fuel tank is full. The duration is much longer than a battery-powered one as gasoline has less weight than batteries, with a 22 minutes flight time on average.
What Is Considered A Combustible Engine?
A combustible engine is an engine that produces mechanical power through fuel combustion. There are internal and external combustion engines. The internal one is an engine that burns fuel with air inside to generate motive power. On the other hand, the external combustion engine is one whose fuel combustion happens in a chamber outside the engine.
What Are the Most Eco-Friendly Drone Power Sources?
The most eco-friendly drone power sources are electric power sources. The reason these drone-fueling options are environmentally sound is the ability to emit minimally. They include laser power beaming, solar power, and drone batteries.
What Are the Most Efficient Drone Power Sources?
The most efficient drone power sources are batteries (Li-Po and Li-air) and hydrogen fuel cells. Batteries may produce little power but can offer a reasonable flight time. Also, fuel cells are a power efficiency of up to 60% for the gas-power systems and take a short time to refuel.
The question of how drones are powered is fully addressed in this article. Drones’ fueling is vital for these devices as it’s the primary determinant of your gadget’s flight time.
The various powering options include drone batteries (especially Li-Po), hydrogen fuel cells, solar energy, tethers, combustible engine, laser transmitter, and super/ultra-capacitor hybrids.
Each of these drone fueling methods has its benefits and drawbacks. Hence, you need to weigh them before selecting your ideal power source. Generally, the option’s efficiency and drone application determine its suitability.