Joseph Moore, a PhD. candidate at MIT, is working on an impressive robotic system that enables drones to perch on power lines (just like birds) and recharge their batteries.
When the FAA’s regulations catch up with the interest for commercial drone use, this system could make it possible for drones to travel an effectively unlimited distance — when their batteries are nearing zero, they could engage the system to perch on a power line, charge up, and go off again to their destinations.
Since power lines create a magnetic field, a drone equipped with a magnetometer can spot them quite easily. It largely becomes a matter of crunching the numbers to determine the best approach — one that causes the drone to come to a stop just above a line — then having software drive the drone’s control surfaces to make it happen.
Consider the Amazon delivery drones that the company teased earlier this year, which were of a large quadrotor design. Moore told us that a fixed-wing system is more effective for carrying weight than a quadrotor design since its surface generates lift simply by moving through the air. The only lift generated by a quadrotor is the lift that which comes from its spinning propellers.
This perching system is still being developed, and while we didn’t get to see actual perching take place, we were given a demo that demonstrates that this thing works well enough to get within centimeters of a power line. Here’s a hand-thrown glider with onboard electronics that automatically steer it into contact with the line in realtime.