The UK’s Bold Plan To Generate Electricity From Drones Has Received A Big Boost

Airborne wind energy systems (AWES) utilize drones tethered to ground stations to capture wind energy at altitudes beyond the reach of traditional wind turbines. These drones, powered by strong winds, drive generators on the ground to generate electricity. This cutting-edge technology promises to boost efficiency and advance net-zero initiatives, drawing significant interest from academia and industry.

Leading progress in this domain is Dr. Duc H. Nguyen and his team at Bristol University, who have received a £375,000 grant from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to further their AWES research. This effort is bolstered by collaborations with the Norwegian clean energy startup Kitemill and the University Carlos III of Madrid.

AWES presents numerous advantages compared to conventional wind turbines, including diminished carbon footprints, operational versatility across offshore and onshore settings, and enhanced energy provision in remote regions. At the core of this technology are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) soaring at elevated altitudes where wind currents are robust and consistent.

These UAVs are linked to ground stations via tethers, orchestrating electricity generation through strategic tether pulling, fostering lift, and amplifying energy yield. Functioning autonomously, these UAVs dynamically regulate their altitude and flight trajectories to optimize wind energy acquisition. Moreover, they are engineered to execute safe landings in adverse weather conditions or during periods of minimal wind flow.

However, the intricate flight patterns required for efficient energy generation present significant challenges. The UAVs must endure strong aerodynamic forces, making the system highly sensitive and prone to crashes if not precisely controlled. The funding aims to address these challenges by enhancing the efficiency and safety of AWES, thereby paving the way for its commercialization.

Dr. Nguyen’s project focuses on improving AWES by employing bifurcation and continuation methods, advanced numerical techniques used in aircraft dynamics to predict complex behaviors under various conditions. These methods allow for rapid prototyping and testing of high-fidelity AWES models with sophisticated control systems. By replacing current computationally intensive techniques with these methods, significant cost savings and performance improvements can be achieved.

“By replacing existing techniques with bifurcation methods, AWES can achieve significant cost savings and improved performance that will ultimately bring this technology closer to commercialisation,” Nguyen said in a statement.

The potential of AWES is immense, with projections suggesting that by 2050, it could generate power worth €70 billion annually. The current research aims to overcome the barriers to commercialization by developing reliable, efficient, and cost-effective AWES technology, thereby transforming the future of wind energy harvesting.

“AWES technology, with its exceptional material efficiency and higher energy yields, has the potential to become a dominant force in the energy industry,” said Thomas Hårklau, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kitemill.

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