Solar-powered drone switches from helicopter to plane mode

Cells lining its long wingspan will extend its flight time.

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David Lumb
February 24th, 2017
Bobby Schulz / University of Minnesota
Bobby Schulz / University of Minnesota

Ever since the wobbly autogyro went out of fashion, engineers have tried designing a craft that gets the vertical lift of a helicopter's blades with the horizontal thrust of a plane is difficult to pull off. Popular successes, like the AV-8 Harrier series and V-22 Osprey, angle thrust down for takeoff and behind during flight. Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis are building a drone that similarly transforms and is stocked with solar panels to prolong its deployment.

That longer flight time should make it viable for farmers to use it for aerial surveying of their land, pinpointing spots to irrigate or fertilize. The Solar Unmanned Air Vehicle: Quad (SUAV:Q), as the drone is named, takes off vertically and unfolds to a six-foot wingspan for flight. It needs to be that large to carry its multispectral camera for measuring crop health, as well as provide flat space for more solar cells, but can be folded up to fit in the back of a pickup truck.

Unfortunately, there's no sweet videos of the SUAV:Q lifting into the air and switching to plane mode (with appropriate sound effects), so we can only presume it's still being tested. But extending flight time is a perpetual goal for drone makers, which continue to boost battery life and try out hydrogen-cell alternatives.

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