‘Yo, microwave me up a burrito, a pizza, and a drone flight’

microwave power drone flight

Wouldn’t it be great to power an extended drone flight with your microwave? Well forget it, because it’s never going to happen. But researchers have made progress in clinical efforts to use microwave beams to keep a drone temporarily aloft.

Researchers in Japan use microwave beams to power drone flight

That breakthrough in firing microwaves to power drone flight was carried out by researchers at Japan’s University of Tsukuba. The results of their experiment were published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, and reflected increased transmission efficiency by a factor of 40 over previous efforts. Perhaps somewhat less impressive-sounding was the total 30 seconds the scientists elevated their 400-gram vehicle to an altitude of 800 centimeters. But who ever managed to run a marathon without being able to trot around the block first, right?

Truth be told, the University of Tsukuba researchers were a bit of a lock to outperform their predecessors. Previous testing of the technique dated back decades, during which time major technological advances and innovation have surged across the board. Meantime, the last experiments involving microwaves beamed frequencies of just a few gigahertz, compared to the 28 gigahertz the recent trial let fly. That stacking of the lineup guaranteed victory – something the scientists involved acknowledged up front.

“We used a sophisticated beam-tracking system to ensure that the drone received as much of the microwave power as possible,” explained researcher and lead author of the report Kohei Shimamura. “Moreover, to further increase the transmission efficiency, we carefully tuned the phase of the microwaves using an analogue phase shifter that was synchronized with GPS units.”

Talk about leaving the opponent no chance.

Microwave tech shows promise for drone, even rocket propulsion

The goal of the trial, of course, was not to shoot the drone through the roof for a record-setting period or thrash earlier research.

It was instead intended to demonstrate the potentials of transforming microwave energy into power capable getting the craft aloft and held in a fixed position at all. And that it did, attaining overall power transmission efficiency of .43% compared to the previous result of .1% As part of that calculation, the group measured the effectiveness of various steps of the process, including the drone’s capture of microwaves and its conversion of those into electric energy. 

Despite that resounding success, there was no swagger or trash talk coming from Team Tsukuba.

“These results show that more work is needed to improve the transmission efficiency and thoroughly evaluate the feasibility of this propulsion approach for aircraft, spacecraft, and rockets,” Shimamura said. “Future studies should also aim to refine the beam-tracking system and increase the transmission distance beyond that demonstrated in our experiment.”

The report noted particularly promising future applications of microwave power for the propulsion of rockets during lift-off and early flight, which tend to be the most exhausting phases for onboard fuel supplies. It will probably be another decade or more before that kind of microwave technology can be used to power flying craft – much less explode the last kernels of popcorn without burning half the bag first.

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