Amazon’s drone delivery service delivered its first package on December 7, 2016. Almost four years later, it’s still a “future delivery system.”
Probably something like wireless in-flight drone recharging from the tiny Portland-based Global Energy Transmission, which has demonstrated fast wireless charging for drones that gives delivery, inspection, or surveillance drones essentially unlimited range.
Charge time? Just six minutes.
“Like with a regular car when you need more gas, you just go to the closest charging station,” Leonid Plekhanov told me on a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “Spend a few minutes there to fill in your tank and then you just continue your mission.”
We’re mostly familiar with wireless charging for smartphones. That’s slow, generally using about five watts of output via inductive charging technology. Global Energy Transmission’s technology can charge multiple drones simultaneously with a maximum output of 12 kilowatts via magnetic resonant coupling. The system feeds power directly to the drone — it could fly indefinitely above a charging station without a battery — while also charging the battery.
In just a few minutes, the drone is fully charged and able to complete a delivery or resume a task.
The result is that you unlock the power of the drone economy.
With on-the-go charging, fleets of delivery drones go from impossible over anything other than very short ranges to doable at city scale. Security drones go from episodic usability to full-time station-keeping capability. Inspection drones for infrastructure or agriculture go from operator-dependent short-range tasks to autonomous long-range usefulness.
Listen to the interview behind this story:
“We think that this is a piece of high power wireless energy distribution infrastructure,” Plekhanov says. “The idea is that we really want to build a network to connect people with the third dimension … with the sky.”
In-air charging also sidesteps onerous FAA regulations.
Because FAA regulations require inspections after every landing, Plekhanov says, recharging mid-flight without landing allows not only longer range but continuous operation.
Enabling wireless in-air charging requires a number of components. First is the charging station itself, of course. It’s perhaps the size of a small tree but fairly lightweight and could easily be deployed on most building roofs. Drones need a receiving antenna and an AC to DC transformer that can handle high power loads with light weight. Plekhanov says this is a key piece of Global Energy Transmission’s technology: building a high-power transformer that weighs just a couple hundred grams.
And, of course, you need a battery. While theoretically just about any battery will do the job, you are dumping a lot of power into the battery in a short period of time. Batteries that support a 10C charging rate work well in this scenario.
An example of the wireless in-air drone charging station in operation.
Drones don’t need to be incredibly close to any one point to charge. Anything within “several meters” — about six to nine feet — works.
The technology is working and demonstrable. Like the Tesla Supercharger network, it simple needs to be built out. A few thousand would cover the most-populated areas of an average country.
“For a big city, you probably need 100 of such stations, which is not a really big deal for a city with millions and millions of people,” Plekhanov told me. “And then the same network can be utilized by many, many companies, you know, for needs and services and applications, whatever they are going to do.”
For longer applications, you could apply a hub and spoke arrangement with a few branches, connecting nearby cities and enabling longer flight routes if necessary.
Interestingly, Global Energy Transmission’s technology doesn’t just work in the air. It also works underwater, and the company has done proof-of-concept testing for oil and gas companies that use autonomous submarine drones to inspect pipelines or other infrastructure.
“We can achieve quite high efficiency there as well,” Plekhanov says. “And we can transmit many kilowatts of power, again, at a distance of a meter or couple of meters without any plug-in connection.”
The hard question, of course, is that of chicken and egg.
Wireless drone charging is a great solution for drone deliveries … if all the software, management, regulatory, and business infrastructure is also in place. Given that companies like Amazon have been trying to commercialize drone deliveries for four years, now might be a good time, but it’s hard to build out a charging network without a big client that needs it tomorrow.
The good news for Global Energy Transmission, however, is that its technology is also useful for applications where you might need just one charging station: security drones, or agtech applications, where farmers might have one or more drones monitoring their fields, crops, and equipment.
This past summer Dominos delivered a pizza to a customer on a beach via a drone. If we want that to become more commonplace than gimmick, this is the kind of charging station buildout that we need.