IoT Blog
IoT Blog

Extending the IoT into the Sky with Solar-Powered Drones

When most people think of drones, they are likely to think of either cool toys or military surveillance devices. However, drones also play an important role in a range of civilian industries, conducting surveillance missions that are difficult and costly, if not impossible, for helicopters to accomplish. Drones cost less to build and maintain than helicopters and, with advanced IoT technologies, can be easily operated via autopilot on long missions. In addition, they can fly at lower altitudes than most helicopters, providing higher resolution video and photos. These capabilities make drones perfect for agriculture, maritime, land and industrial infrastructure surveillance applications, including the monitoring of oil and gas pipelines, railways, electrical grids and other critical infrastructure. It also makes them an excellent solution for public safety applications, such as forest fire detection and monitoring or search and rescue missions.

There’s just one problem – limited power. The current generation of drones primarily relies on batteries for energy. This restricts the range and duration of missions, as the drones frequently need to return to the ground to recharge. This increases operational costs (someone needs to be on the ground to recharge the drone) and severely limits customers’ ability to continuously monitor a large area for a day or more at a time. Until recently, these obstacles have meant that many otherwise attractive industrial surveillance applications using drones have needed to be scaled back, if not scuttled.

The solution? Solar-powered drones. XSun, a startup based in France, designed the 4.5m-wide SolarXOne drone with a wide surface of solar panels and a large variety of sensors, giving it the ability to fly autonomously for days while collecting large amounts of data over vast distances. The SolarXOne has all the benefits of a regular drone over a helicopter, but with much longer flight times, better range and, for many industrial and public safety applications, more cost efficiency.

However, the SolarXOne’s long flight times and wide range of operation are of little benefit if users at the drone’s control center can’t reliably and continuously connect to the drone, secure data from it and control it. That’s why XSun is using Sierra Wireless’ AirLink® RV50 gateways and multi-operator smart connectivity services for the SolarXOne.

The AirLink RV50 industrial LTE gateway is perfectly suited to meet the demanding connectivity needs of the SolarXOne. Its extremely low power consumption allows XSun to maximize the SolarXOne’s range and flight time. With its rugged design, the RV50 meets or exceeds the military-grade MIL-STD-810G specification for shock, vibration, temperature and humidity. This means the RV50 can be trusted to operate in the harsh environments required for many industrial surveillance applications. Its programmability supports a wide variety of industrial surveillance applications. Support for an extensive range of LTE bands, including Band 28 and Band 12, enables the RV50’s use in remote locations around the world. Plus, with downlink speeds of up to 300 Mbps, the gateway can support video and other data-intensive surveillance applications.

Sierra Wireless’ smart connectively services complement the technological advantages of the RV50. These services provide XSun with global, multi-operator coverage from a single SIM, ensuring continuous connection between the drone and XSun’s control center. With Sierra Wireless’ AirVantage® IoT Platform, XSun can also manage all their SIMs from a single dashboard and integrate data from their drones into other applications.

Sierra Wireless’ RV50 and smart connectivity services deliver XSun a complete solution for building secure, dependable communications into the SolarXOne. This simplifies and accelerates XSun’s product development. It also provides XSun’s customers with the reliable connectivity and real-time data transmission they need to stay in constant contact with the SolarXOne.

Supported by the simplicity delivered by Sierra Wireless’ fully integrated end-to-end IoT connectivity solution, XSun is quickly moving the SolarXOne out of the lab and into commercial deployment. After a successful first flight on October 30, 2017, Sierra Wireless and XSun conducted a flight simulation of the SolarXOne at MWC, with the SolarXOne monitoring a pipeline between France and Spain in real-time. Visitors to the Sierra Wireless booth were able to view the XSun’s Control Center application and see pipeline video reliably transmitted from the drone to monitors at the show booth. Sierra Wireless also demonstrated how the AirVantage IoT platform can be used to measure the drone’s data consumption and manage the drone fleet lifecycle.

With solar-powered flight records now being broken on a regular basis, solar-powered flight is not just a curiosity, but a commercial technology able to reduce costs, improve public safety and lower carbon emissions in the real-world.

Start with Sierra to find out more about how, like XSun, Sierra Wireless’ fully integrated end-to-end IoT connectivity solutions can help you develop innovative IoT solutions that rethink the future.