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U.S. Army wants to use laser power to keep drones airborne indefinitely

Drones can be used for a wide variety of purposes, but one problem that hinders almost all of them is limited battery life. Consumer-focused drones have a flight time of around 10 to 20 minutes, while even the most serious, record-breaking unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can stay airborne for only hours, or maybe a few days at the most. The U.S. Army has a plan to change all that, however — by using lasers to power multicopters indefinitely through a sophisticated wireless-charging technique.

Unlike the kind of Qi wireless-charging standard employed in today’s smartphones, this wouldn’t require physical contact between a charging pad and the device. Instead, it will use laser light directed from the ground to the drone’s onboard photovoltaic cell. This laser light would then be converted into electricity to help keep the drone’s batteries fully juiced. This could reportedly be achieved from a distance of more than 1,600 feet.

The researchers involved with the project are hoping to show off a working ground-to-ground system early next year. This will be followed by a functioning ground-to-air demonstration in 2020.

Before this can be achieved, though, a few problems still need to be sorted out. The biggest challenge, according to a report by New Scientist, involves thermal management, i.e., making sure that the process doesn’t wind up damaging the drone via excess heat. The researchers hope to solve this issue by developing accurate beam control, along with allowing the excess heat the opportunity to properly dissipate.

The U.S. Army isn’t the only group researching drones that can fly for vastly extended periods of time. In the U.K., the defense company BAE Systems is working on the development of a high-altitude, long-endurance drone that’s capable of achieving flight time of up to one year. To do this, it will use a combination of long-life battery technology and ultra-lightweight solar cells. The team is aiming to test full size-prototypes in the second half of 2019.

While it seems likely that these tools will be used for military applications first, hopefully it won’t be long before similar technology is available for the drones that you and I can purchase.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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