For the drone revolution to really take off, the flying machines will have to fly longer than the half-hour-or-so that today’s batteries allow. Startup Top Flight says it has the solution.
Companies like Amazon are annoyed by the FAA’s draft drone rules that restrict commercial use of unmanned aircraft. But the regulations may be a moot point unless delivery drones can actually get where they’re going and back. Commercially available quadcopter drones such as the popular DJI Phantom 2 can fly only half an hour or so on a day that isn’t too windy while carrying less than a pound of payload. Before the drone revolution happens in force, manufacturers must extend the flying time.
Top Flight, a startup out of Malden, Mass., says it has the answer to the range problem in the form of hybrid propulsion, a little like what’s in many new cars. The company’s drones in development carry gasoline-powered generators that charge their onboard batteries in flight. The result, COO John Polo says, is a drone with six 26-inch rotors that can fly more than two hours at a time in gusts of up to 35 miles per hour, while carrying payloads such as cameras, infrared sensors, or crop-spraying equipment.
“The concept of a hybrid engine is an onboard generator,” Polo says. “It’s generating juice all the time. It’s generating juice for the motors, and it’s generating juice for the electronics and whatever is on the payload.”
Top Flight is barely a year old and employs fewer than 10 people. But, Polo says, what separates his people is their pedigree. The market is now full of companies like DJI, 3D Robotics, and Parrot that build hobbyist-grade RC aircraft and are trying to make them viable for commercial use. “The manufacturers that manufacture from that bottom-up thinking don’t understand how to make something really safe and redundant, let alone try to fly it beyond the capacity of a battery,” he says.
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Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com