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Drone flight endurance is limited by the aircraft’s power supply, among other factors. A new solution under development turns the drone wings themselves into an extension of the batteries powering the plane. The technology not only extends flight time and distance, but allows more room in the fuselage for critical payload.

Ultimately, it is hoped that such technology could be used not only in drones, but in a fully-electric passenger-carrying regional jet.

The energy-storage system in which battery cells were incorporated into the autonomous aircraft’s 6-foot (1.8-m) wingspan allows the drone to remain airborne for a total of 171 minutes – almost three hours.

Prof. Vikas Prakash from Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, started with a 7-foot-long (2.1-m), single-propeller, fiberglass-bodied fixed-wing drone. The idea was that this setup would not only boost the amount of energy stored onboard, but that it could do so without sacrificing cargo space or adding much weight.

Such technology would allow drones to either fly farther and for longer periods of time, or to carry additional sensors or other heavier payloads.

In previous tests performed at Ohio’s Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, using a regular wing and the drone’s standard battery pack, the aircraft was able to fly for a maximum of 91 minutes before needing a recharge.

Late this February, however, it was tested with the battery wing swapped in. This change “demonstrates that the use of structural battery is a winning concept,” says Prakash. “This will allow our crafts to fly longer and/or carry heavier payloads without compromising fuselage space.”

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