Ayelet Ben Arav
Ayelet Ben Arav

VP BizDev at Incubit

The Path to Power: Which Propulsion Method Will Make the Drone Dream a Reality?

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Drones have been flying around us for quite some time now, but these unmanned aerial vehicles usually belonged to a gadget-loving uncle or a wedding photographer. More recently, we can see drones beginning to live up to their broad potential in the commercial and industrial arenas. Many businesses are excited to utilize drones for a long list of use cases, but for that to actually happen, drone manufacturers must address one key issue: Endurance. For the drone industry to mature even further and fulfill its promise, its products need to work in more challenging conditions, for long hours and while traveling far. 

Hiring a drone: Use cases to consider

There are so many ways to use drones in a variety of industries, from the possibility to complete aerial tasks on a budget, to saving lives by replacing humans in performing dangerous tasks. Here are a few examples that demonstrate both the potential of drone use and the challenge of doing so under the current battery-related limitations:

1.Disaster relief: Drones can be sent to disaster areas like storms and fires in order to help assess the situation and locate survivors without placing first responders in greater danger. Since every second can save or cost lives, it’s important not to waste time flying back to base for a battery swap.

  1. Oil and gas inspections: Drones can inspect and monitor massive areas of explorations sites and pipes to perform predictive maintenance tasks, as well as respond to issues. Since oil fields often span over many square kilometers, covering their entire area without the help of drones is extremely costly and dangerous. But, drones performing this mission would need to stay in the air for much longer than what’s acceptable today.
  1. Renewables: Huge photovoltaic solar fields and wind turbine fields could definitely use the help of drones, especially if they are offshore. Once again, these are particularly large areas that require more capable drones, ones that do not rely on batteries, to perform their task efficiently. Setting up charging stations along the way will significantly increase the overall cost of the project, as well as make it harder to shift and change location and routes, taking away the flexibility and affordability advantages that drones offer..
  1. Package delivery: Unmanned cargo deliveries already exist, but not to the extent we would like them to. Today, most drone delivery companies are aiming for “last mile deliveries”, and the main issue on their plate is related to regulation. Once these issues will be resolved, the issue of endurance and flight duration will surface as a key issue, preventing further expansion and heavier payloads. For example, in the delivery of medical supplies to underdeveloped areas, a longer flight can make or break the entire operation, saving or costing the lives of many. Companies like Zipline send vaccines, blood transfusions, drugs and tests to remote areas in desperate need. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was met with an even greater need for medical equipment transportation solutions that do not involve any human interaction. There are obviously countless other products to be delivered by drones, but these are examples that make the urgency in improving drone propulsion technology that much clearer.
  1. Powerline inspections: There are millions of miles of power lines to cover, monitor and maintain around the world. Nowadays, this task is performed by humans and often on-foot, while drones can be extremely helpful in getting the work done much faster and more accurately. That is, assuming they are provided with propulsion systems that enable long flight duration and a safe return to base.
  1. Agriculture applications: What used to be a relatively conservative market is opening up to new technologies in recent years, which is exciting to watch. Drones can become farmers’ best friends in virtually every task that takes place in the field, from monitoring to even seeding. Growing demand for food results in agriculture in scale – larger fields that require innovative propulsion systems for drones to be able to handle the tasks at hand.   

 Flight duration: A key industry challenge

When indsutrial businesses consider whether or not to embrace new technology, the cost and ease of implementation play a major role. When it comes to drones, without the ability to truly support large-scale operations, many industrial businesses will reach the unfortunate conclusion that drones are simply not worth investing in. Unlike individual consumers who can be satisfied with drones that are only able to last 30 minutes in the air, industrial businesses require a far longer flight duration in order for the effort to be worthwhile.

It’s also important to note that flight duration depends on payload capacity. This means that industrial and commercial use cases which require drones to carry heavier equipment and supply (or people) will offer an even shorter flight time. Sure, air taxis taking us on a 10-minute flight may be a cool experience, but they’ll never become a regular means of transportation without some serious propulsion advancements.

How to propel a drone

Current technology offers different ways to propel drones, each presenting its own advantages and disadvantages:

  1. Batteries: One of the more familiar propulsion options is less likely to meet the needs of commercial and industrial companies. Although simple to operate and maintain, electric batteries offer low energy density and therefore enable short flight duration.
  1. Petrol: 1 mass unit of petrol provides 50 times more energy compared to electric batteries of the same mass. There are currently two popular gasoline propulsion methods: series hybrid and parallel hybrid.
  2. Hydrogen fuel cells:  Here, electrochemical cells are being used to convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. These cells, like petrol, also have a higher energy to mass ratio than batteries and their byproduct and water vapor which makes this method efficient and eco-friendly. However, this method is still very expensive, requires heavy ramp up and startup time. And offers a relatively short life time.

So, which method has got the power?

When drones were first introduced to the world, the focal point was their hardware. After shifting to software and use cases discussions, we are now going back to exploring the necessary hardware capabilities that will meet evolving market demands.

It’s hard to make predictions regarding technology, and even more so when the field in question is only beginning to show its true potential. One thing we can say for sure is that the drone industry is worth exploring, as it is set to grow and mature dramatically in the near future. We also believe we can learn a lot from what we’ve seen in the automotive industry and bet on hybrid options that use the best of different worlds to form one superior unmanned aerial vehicle. One such hybrid technology is developed by Flyworks, which offers a patented, novel way to propel multirotor drones using a petrol engine. The company leverages the remarkable performance of petrol fuel with the safety and simplicity of the multirotor platform. Most of the power that the drone requires to stay in the air comes directly from an internal combustion engine while a small electric drive system provides a small fraction of power only for maneuvering.

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