A drone that never lands? Scientists in China test lasers to keep drones aloft 'forever'

The method would charge drones while they're airborne, meaning they would never have to land.
Chris Young
Surveillance drone flying in the sky stock photo.
Surveillance drone flying in the sky stock photo.

Chesky_W/iStock 

A team of researchers from the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in China has developed a method for using high-energy laser beams to keep drones airborne "forever," according to a report from The South China Morning Post.

Though high-power laser systems are more often associated with anti-drone technologies, Professor Li Xuelong and colleagues from NPU have devised a method that will do the opposite of downing the increasingly ubiquitous small aircraft.

Laser-powered drones could remain aloft "forever"

The team of researchers reportedly fitted a drone with a photoelectric conversion module that converts light energy into electricity. That means a high-energy laser beam could be trained on the drone to charge it remotely.

The team carried out a recent experiment for what they call optics-driven drones (ODD), during which they tested the automated charging process that tracks the drones during flight.

"Highlights of the research are 24-hour intelligent vision tracking system and the autonomous long-range energy replenishment for ODD," the team wrote on NPU's official WeChat account last week, as translated by The South China Morning Post.

The first step for the researchers was to learn how to track the drones during flight. To do this, they developed a tracking algorithm, which they claim was effective in different environments, light conditions, and weather conditions. They also used an adaptive beam-shaping technology that allowed the beam to autonomously adjust its intensity to increase the distance of wireless transmission.

The researcher's report also details the development of a protection algorithm that automatically adjusts the laser beam's intensity if an obstacle is detected in the beam's path. Using this technology, the team said it successfully carried out three field tests — one indoor and two outdoor at day and nighttime.

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Could laser-charged drones become a reality?

In their report, the researchers say their method could be used for disaster relief. "In some time-consuming missions, such as searching for tourists trapped in flash floods, the continuous flight of drones will greatly save precious rescue time," the report reads. "ODD are expected to deeply participate in social governance, such as traffic control, security patrols, rescues in disasters and contactless logistics."

The researchers have not revealed specifications on the system's range photoelectric conversion efficiency, citing the fact that their research could also be used for classified military applications. That is, of course, a large omission, as running a high-energy laser beam 24/7 to keep a drone airborne could prove to be prohibitively expensive. It would require massive amounts of energy, especially if the goal is to maintain a large fleet of ODDs, requiring numerous laser beams. Many other questions also remain regarding the effectiveness of the protection algorithm and the potential danger of beaming high-energy laser beams across open spaces.

The report also mentions a few slightly more farfetched potential applications, including the development of a "low-altitude satellite" or "artificial moon." The ambition of such a project recalls Breakthrough Starshot, another research project that aims to develop the technology to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 20 years using millions of laser beams trained on a light sail. Much like Breakthrough Starshot, the technology looks incredibly promising, but there is no guarantee we will actually see laser-charged drones that never land any time in the near future.