French solar-powered drone startup takes flight in Australia

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Australia’s vast agricultural properties and progressive airspace regulations have proved attractive for French sun-powered drone manufacturer Sunbirds, leading the company to set up operations in the country. The firm brings to the market a wide range of fixed-wing drones and sensors, which can be used across many industries, including forestry, livestock farming and mining.

Sunbirds says its flagship product is able to fly 10 times longer and farther than other drones.”Sunbirds’ solar-powered drone can fly for seven hours, making it a perfect match for aerial monitoring of large areas with plentiful sunlight, such as cattle stations in Outback Australia,” says Amaury Wiest, Sunbirds Director. “Australian landholders have to fly manned aircraft twice a week to check their stock and bore water pumps over properties as large as some European countries. Our drones can significantly reduce monitoring costs, save time and fuel, and increase safety and comfort.’”

The company uses high-efficiency SunPower solar cells and its proprietary technology – developed together with French government-funded tech research organisation CEA – to laminate and encapsulate the cells in a thin plastic film, which is then attached to the carbon fibre wing. “We have chosen to make our solar wing as cost effective as possible for two reasons: wings are one of the parts most often damaged on a fixed wing drone, and we want our customer to use the drones on a daily basis so it’s a matter of when, not if they’re going to break a wing,” says Wiest.

Sunbirds’ drones are also equipped with 6S LiPo ultralight batteries with 2200 mAh capacity, which are often fully charged after a four-hour flight since they harvesting solar power during the flight. “The simple system we’ve chosen does not add much weight to the wing, and the weight gain of using only a small battery is actually higher than the added weight of the solar system,” Wiest tells pv magazine.

In some of the previous efforts to build a solar-powered drone, the success was mostly limited as fixing solar panels on the vehicle was adding too much weight, whereas using thin film to wrap the body of a drone comes with a very high costs. “Using other technologies is indeed costly, compared to our solution. We have 110W installed on the wing and it would cost about 1000$/W to use PV film. Our costs are about 100 times lower,” Wiest says.

Wiest adds that Australian regulations for long-range drone flights are among the most advanced and flexible in the world, ensuring Sunbirds’ drones could be readily deployed. On top of this, Australia’s proximity to and cultural ties with Asia was another reason to set up operations in the country, as Sunbirds looks to expand its business into Southeast Asia.

The Toulouse-based startup has set up an office, assembly workshop and maintenance centre in Brisbane with the help of the Queensland government via Hot DesQ, an Advance Queensland program which aims to attract international and interstate entrepreneurial talent to boost Queensland’s startup ecosystem and broaden global connections.

The company has already partnered with an Australian drone retailer, local training companies and international firms to grow its business in Australia. Before relocating to Brisbane, the firm was hosted by South Australia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Most of our customers, such as cattle properties, national resource management organizations and others, are in Queensland so it made sense to relocate to Brisbane,” Wiest said.

As for next steps, the company is looking at hiring local operators in regional Australia in early 2020. “We are focusing on training landholders and operators and have even some projects involving Aboriginal communities in the top end,” Wiest said. “With the change in regulation for Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights, more and more Sunbirds drones will be seen flying in Outback Australia soon.”

Attractive airspace

Meanwhile, a similar technology is being pursued by Adelaide-based father and son company Praxis Aeronautics. The firm has developed a process to integrate c-Si solar cells in the composite material of a drone, not adding additional weight to the aerial vehicle, while keeping the costs down.

Praxis Aeronautics is working with four cell manufacturers to provide options at different weights, efficiency and price points for potential partners. Initial costs range from $4 a watt at 25% efficiency through to $400 a watt at 32% efficiency. The developers believe their approach can have numerous commercial applications, from aerial mapping for the mining industry, to cheaper shark spotting in summer and fast deliveries of medicines to remote communities.

Australia’s largely unrestrictive airspace has also attracted European multinational aerospace corporation Airbus, which launched the world’s first Zephyr Solar High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite operating base in the north of Western Australia last year. The solar-powered aerial vehicle with integrated lithium-ion batteries is operating out of Wyndham with the goal to provide observation and communications services to a range of customers.

Previously on solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles 

Solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles have stirred up strong interest worldwide, but had limited success. One of the important milestones happened in 2016, when Facebook launched the Aquila aircraft powered by solar PV, which used only 5,000 watts to circle skies for 96 minutes and beam down internet access to remote regions using lasers. Although Facebook initially described the flight as successful, it was revealed later in the year that the American National Transportation Safety Board had opened an investigation into a structural failure on the drone’s test flight, causing it to crush on landing as the aircraft encountered wind conditions that it could not withstand. Last year, the social media behemoth announced it was abandoning its autonomous internet drone program.

In 2017, Google’s parent Alphabet decided to end its solar-powered drone program, tasked with developing aerial vehicles that could fly for several days at a time and take images of earth or beam down internet, instead concentrating its efforts on Project Loon, which is delivering something similar, but with the help of high-altitude wind-propelled balloons.

A notable achievement in the field of solar-powered aircrafts took place in 2016 when the Solar Impulse 2 plane, a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747 with more than 17,000 solar cells on its wings, completed the first round-the-world flight using no fossil fuel in 16 legs of the trip that lasted more than 23 days.

During its maiden flight last August, Airbus’ Zephyr S stayed in the air 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes, which qualified as the longest duration flight ever made. The previous longest flight duration record was also logged by a Zephyr prototype aircraft a few years earlier, achieving then more than 14 days continuous flight, which already was ten times longer than any other aircraft in the world.

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