Falling prices give a welcome boost to solar aviators

Steadily declining prices for batteries and solar panels are prompting innovators and entrepreneurs to look again at solar aviation

Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Zachary Shahan, editor of CleanTechnica and Planetsave. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.

Solar-powered airplanes are a bit further along than conventional airplanes were when the Wright brothers took their first flight, but not much. The Solar Impulse team has managed to keep a solar-powered plane aloft for over 24 hours straight and flown one across the United States. Now, it is now preparing for a flight around the world!

That’s the state of progress of solar-powered aircraft right now. But what’s in store for the future? Solar drones look almost certain to take off, following Google’s decision to buy Titan Aerospace, a company that specializes in these drones. There hasn’t been much commercial demand for its high-cost drones to date, but low solar costs and low battery prices are likely to change that.

Google isn’t the only company that could benefit from solar drones. Unmanned aircraft that can fly non-stop once they get over the clouds could be used for many purposes; collecting data and sending information of various sorts. Furthermore, the use of drones for deliveries seems to be a genuine possibility. The UAE is planning to use drones to deliver government mail, and Amazon now has a “Prime Air” program that uses unmanned drones “to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less.” Powering these types of small aircraft with solar or at least a hybrid system that includes solar seems most logical down the road.

Small, hybrid aircraft
It takes a lot of energy to get a heavy plane into flight. Doing that with solar panels and batteries doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, if ever. However, hybrid aircraft that use a fuel source for takeoff and then solar panels and batteries for their energy needs once in the air makes a lot of sense. Above the clouds, or on sunny days, as long as enough solar panels are on the aircraft, this renewable power source can take over from expensive, polluting fossil fuels.

I think this type of aircraft (a Chevy Volt of airplanes, we might say) would likely first become popular in small airplanes before making its way to larger, commercial aircraft.

Fully solar-powered aircraft
The weight and cost of solar panels and batteries still need to come down considerably in order for solar power to become logical for commercial airlines. However, that’s not to say this isn’t possible. Solar power costs have been dropping at a rapid clip, and the same with electric vehicle batteries. At the same time, efficiencies are improving, helping to bring down the weight in applications where a certain power output is needed.

Computers were gigantic just a few decades ago. “Supercomputers” were less powerful and could do less than your iPad. But things changed fast. Solar panels and electric vehicle batteries are following a very similar trend. We can only guess where things will end up.

And let’s not forget that airplane design and efficiency isn’t done yet either. New materials, new wing designs, new motors, and much more can help to bring down a plane’s energy needs, more quickly opening up the possibility of large airplanes powered by solar panels.

What are your guesses on the future of solar power and aircraft?

Infographic: The history and future of Solar aircraft

Solar Aircraft2

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About the author

Zachary Shahan

I'm the director of the CleanTechnica and Planetsave news sites. I've been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and I've been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. I'm also the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity.
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