Solar Powered UAV Blimp

June 23, 2017

RC Blimp covered in solar panels

Among our recent projects, we’re pleased to highlight the introduction of solar powered blimps. Armchair quarterbacks that commentate on airship design will inevitably bring up the concept of a large dirigible covered in solar panels, a seemingly natural fit for an airframe with such a large surface area. Of course, as good as this idea may sound, very few, if any, have actually productionized the concept into an actual working prototype. As of 2017, a Google search for “solar powered blimp” will return a slew of concept art and articles that bring forth only ideas, but the corresponding execution remains absent.

But at EBlimp, we believe that ideas are cheap, and we take pride in our actual ability to execute.

Undoubtedly, the idea of powering one of our blimps with solar panels has always been on the backburner, but this year we were able to partner with Mothership Aeronautics, an angel funded startup that’s using solar powered blimps for pipeline inspections. Not only were we able to prove the concept, but the final design can be replicated for future clients and projects as is.

You can see a brief demo put together by Mothership in the video below:

Technical Specifications

The aircraft demo’ed in the above video is 20 feet. Of course, all physics scales, and we can comfortably build another blimp up to 35 feet. At its current size, the solar panels could in theory generate 400 watts. In practice, only a subset of that rating is actually generated, but the important point is that the blimp is energy positive. As long as the wind is on average low and the sun is shining, the blimp can fly indefinitely. This design is optimized for endurance at the cost of power, so both the shape of the balloon and the motors were influenced by that goal. Our own demo video is below:

This is exciting from a purely technical standpoint, but the implications for you are fairly predictable.

Free Advertising

You can check out our case for why blimps make great advertising tools, but most of our clients are in fact marketers, so we’ll begin by highlighting the relevant benefits. A blimp’s cost is fixed as a one time purchase, and helium is cheap when compared to alternative local marketing platforms (hydrogen is much cheaper, but we would not recommend using it!). Therefore, if you made the effort to buy helium and start a flight, it’s probable that you’d want to maximize your flight time. With a solar powered blimp, you could feasibly fly for eight to ten hours to the point that the operator would quickly become bored. If you’re bored and making money, you’re doing things right!

As we highlight the boredom associated with a stable aircraft, we should also put a plug in for the autopilot module we’ve been working on, which offloads the boredom and mitigates the need for excellent piloting skills.

Surveillance

For those that are interested in using drones for surveillance, an all too familiar complaint is that the flight time for multi-rotor aircraft will not suffice to adequately accomplish the job. Our solar blimp design can easily be paired with any of our products (minus, perhaps, the custom balloons shaped like cartoon characters), and so the possibilities outnumber what can be enumerated in a single post. Namely, we frequently mount camera gimbals on our aircraft that can be remotely controlled to stream a live video feed back to a base station. Even without solar panels, we can make zeppelins that can stay aloft for three hours at a time with this setup. The introduction of solar panels will then obviously extend the flight time, but it also allows us to produce aircraft that don’t necessarily need to be so large to satisfy the requirements.

Higher Tethered Balloons

Another one of our products that could easily benefit from solar panels is the tethered balloon.

The long story short is that the higher altitude requirements that you have for a tethered balloon increases the cost of the design.

The unabridged explanation of this limitation is that balloons with a longer tether increase the resistance in the wire as well as overall weight. To try and resolve either of these issues will conversely amplify the effect of the other (we can lower the resistance in the wire by using a bigger wire and vice versa). Therefore, the only solution to address the problem in a typical setup is to increase the voltage in the wire. But, there’s a ceiling on what voltage can be used before an unsafe threshold is reached. And so, there is no workaround to requiring larger blimps for higher altitudes in order to counteract the weight of the wire required for a particular altitude.

All this said, for applications requiring a high atltitude tethered balloon, at some point it will become more cost effective to use solar panels in lieu of a larger balloon. This assumes that the limitations of solar panels with their requirements for sunlight is an acceptable constraint of your application.

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