The US Army is developing drones that can be charged by lasers in mid-air | Innovation

Even the most power-efficient can only fly for about half an hour without needing a charge, but the United States is working on a novel solution – and it involves lasers.

According to New Scientist, researchers are experimenting with firing beams at photovoltaic cells (solar panels), giving them a boost from up to 500 meters away. If such a system could be fitted to a drone, it would remove the need for docking and charging, allowing the craft to stay aloft for hours on end.

Unlike PHASA-35 – a high-altitude drone designed by BAE Systems and Prismatic that will stay airborne by charging its photovoltaic cells above the clouds – the US military's experiment is designed for smaller craft that fly lower and are mostly used for intelligence-gathering.

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It's an ingenious idea, but there are a few potential pitfalls. Firstly, any light energy not converted to electricity will be turned into heat, which could melt the drone mid-flight. Then there's the safety issue of other objects straying into the beam – including people, birds and aircraft.

The US Army hopes to mitigate these problems by more accurate targeting, and finding more effective ways to dissipate thermal energy. It's currently working on a working model that will demonstrate the process ground-to-ground, and intends to have a ground-to-air system operational by 2020.

It's highly unlikely we'll see such remote charging technology in consumer drones any time soon though. Flying lessons are already mandatory in many countries – and that's without throwing high-energy lasers into the equation.

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