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Solar energy quadcopter drone on the flight

The quadcopter drone developed by the NUS Engineering team can be powered solely by sunlight, and has flown above 10 feet from the test flights. (Credit: National University of Singapore)

A university in Singapore, has performed one of the first practical flights of a solar-powered quadcopter drone.

The prototype flew as high as 10 metres (33 feet) in the test flights with the help of solar energy and there is no battery or other energy storage on board, according to the National University of Singapore (NUS), which announced that an engineering team had carried out the test flight.

“Rotary winged aircraft are significantly less efficient in the generation of a lift in comparison with their fixed-wing counterparts. [so] a viable 100% solar rotary aircraft that take off and land vertically, remains a major technical challenge until now,” the university said in a statement.

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But NUS said the prototype can get lift access in a controlled way, making it promising for practical implementation.

A number of high-profile attempts to develop practical fixed-wing solar-powered drones have floundered, such as Facebook’s Aquila, a high altitude platform station (HAPS) system, and Google’s Titan Drone program. And Solar Impulse 2 is focused on commercial application hurdles after the 25,000 mile journey around the world. So, solar-powered drone success is certainly not a given.

Built with lightweight carbon fiber, the NUS quadcopter drone weighs just 2.6 kilograms (about 5.7 pounds) and has 148 silicon solar cells.

The drone can be controlled remotely or programmed to fly autonomously with the help of a built-in GPS system.

Practical applications include photography, package delivery, supervision and inspection. NUS said it can also be used as a so-called ‘flying panels’ that are in need of solar energy to the disaster areas.

And in scenarios when sunlight is not available, batteries can be equipped to the power of the drone.

“Since 2012, eight NUS student teams have made successive improvements in design and worked in the direction of a fully solar-powered plane,” NUS said in the statement. The first “solar-assisted” version was developed by students in 2012 was only 45 percent of the flight power from solar cells. The rest of the power in that version came from on-board batteries, NUS said.

Associate Professor Aaron Danner of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering supervising the project.

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