Wireless in-flight drone charging: the drone economy is no longer a fantasy

wireless in-flight drone recharging station

Drone deliveries won’t be common until we figure out distributed charging. But maybe … we already have …

In this episode of TechFirst, we chat with Leonid Plekhanov from Global Energy Transmission (GET). GET has a last-mile in-air fast charging solution for drones (and another for undersea drones).

Amazon’s been touting drone delivery for years. And this summer, Domino’s delivered a pizza to a customer on the beach via drone. But really, no-one’s doing this at scale. With the ability to charge your drones wherever they go, the much-needed last-mile solution might now be here.

Scroll down for full audio, video, and a transcript of our conversation …

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Read: wireless in-flight drone charging, full transcript

(This transcript has been edited for clarity.)

John Koetsier: Drone deliveries won’t be common until we figure out distributed charging. But maybe we already have.

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. So, as we know, Amazon has been talking about drone delivery for years, right? And this summer in the Netherlands, I believe, Domino’s delivered a pizza to a customer on the beach via drone.

But most of what’s happened so far has been kind of a gimmick or a stunt. You haven’t really been able to do this at scale and not necessarily in a fully operational, consistent, everyday type of scenario. If you don’t have the ability to charge your drones wherever they go, that’s a problem. But the last-mile solution might now be here.

To get the scoop, we’re chatting with Leonid Plekhanov from the Global Energy Transmission company. Welcome! 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah. Thank you, John. Thank you. Hello everybody. 

John Koetsier: Hey, pleasure to have you. So you’ve just unveiled wireless charging for drones. Talk about it. How’s that work? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, I mean, it really works maybe similar to what you already have, like in the cell phone charging or maybe automotive industry. But here we just bring it really to a new level because you need high distance, you need high power and you need a very lightweight receiving system, which is crucial for this kind of application.

John Koetsier: Right.

Leonid Plekhanov: So what we really build is what we — sometimes I say this is a sort of the gas station for drones, you know.

Like with a regular car when you need more gas, you just go to the closest charging station, you know, spend [a] few minutes there to fill in your tank and then just you continue your mission. Now, we said, okay, why wouldn’t we build something similar for drones?

Because everybody knows the drone, you know, like on average, right, like 15-20 minutes and then you have to land and plug in the, you know, swap the battery, plug into anywhere, whatever. And we said, okay, why we just cannot develop something to charge quickly in the mid flight? And that was the core idea behind it. 

John Koetsier: So talk about the technology that you’re using. Is it similar to wirelessly charging your phone? Just inductive technology? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yes and no. I mean, it’s actually resonant coupling, resonant magnetic coupling, so it may be similar to some cell charging technologies, yes. But the difference is really in as we say, the devil is in details. 

Same thing is here, because … well, first of all, it’s much higher power level. Because performance you have like 5 watts. Here our maximum output right now is 12 kilowatts. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Leonid Plekhanov: Which is like a thousand times bigger, right? And the distance performance you have, well, it’s — actually we call that cell phone charging now is plugless, not wireless. It’s almost a contact distance. Here we have at least several meters which makes it really different. 

John Koetsier: Very interesting. What technology does a drone need in order to use your charger? Does it need a special battery? Does it need some sort of special connection to accept the power? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Well basically we need three things on board.

  1. Well, number one is a receiving antenna. So our transmitting station generates a certain field in this kind of spherical area around the charging station, and then a drone gets inside this spherical area and starts charging, but it needs a receiving antenna, that’s number one. This is a sort of a loop around the perimeter of a drone.
  2. And then number two is a piece of high power electronics, which is actually a big innovation here at GET because we were able to make this AC to DC transformation at this power level in a very compact and lightweight component. So just, you know, [a] couple hundred grams maximum for … 12 kilowatts of power. And we do a high voltage AC to low voltage DC and then it goes into the battery.
  3. And then number three is battery. Well, technically we can charge any battery, any kind of battery. So it’s not a requirement to have a specific battery, but what we are saying — well, this is a high power charger and right now we really charge a drone in flight from 0 to 100% just in six minutes.

Just six minutes is right for full battery charging. But that means that you need 10c charge rate for the battery.

I mean, you need a battery which is capable to accept that level of current, because [a] typical lithium polymer battery just may blow up at that level of current.

John Koetsier: Well exactly, I mean, my DJI drone that battery gets really hot when it charges, and that’s not even while it’s flying, right? So you’re taking a drone that is in flight, still flying, and so power’s going out at the same time you’re doing a rapid charge in. That probably takes some pretty special battery technology.

Leonid Plekhanov: Not really, actually. When we fly and do charging, we supply onboard power system directly from our antenna, so no current is draining out of the battery during this process. 

So we supply that power, so you can — actually, then you’re inside this charging cloud.

Say you can just remove the battery and the drone still can fly, because we supply as much energy as you need for hovering, and then on top of it we just push directly into the battery.

So now, if you have a battery which is capable to accept that level of current, and we may say that there are batteries on the market which are acceptable for that kind of application. So yes, we can provide the battery which you may use for your own drone.

John Koetsier: Very interesting. What’s the range here? So you’re flying your drone or it’s flying itself — which is more likely if you’re using enterprise applications, maybe cloud-based drone software, something like that — it’s flying a particular route, how close does it have to be to the charging station?

Leonid Plekhanov: Well, right now this is, the diamond road charging sphere is about three meters, roughly. So … but you don’t need to be in any exact specific point. So it’s okay to, you know, kind of flow through there.

As soon as you stay inside this area, which is really good for application for example, when you have rough wind conditions, it’s like that is difficult to land and actually you even may lose your drone or a flying vehicle during takeoff and landing.

But here you just stay hovering and you can charge your drone and continue your mission without any issues or risks of losing it.

John Koetsier: And can you charge multiple drones at the same time, or is it one at a time? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Well, yeah, absolutely. You can charge multiple drones at a time as soon as you have enough power in your power source.

And actually the very first version of our system was 10 — it was [a] proof of concept design — but that was 10 meter diameter area. Because with this area, you can charge maybe up to five or seven industrial class drones at the same time. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Leonid Plekhanov: But then we should realize that there is no company right now in the world who has a very big fleet of drones so that they to need charge them all in five minutes simultaneously. And it just doesn’t make sense, you know, from a business person.

So, but in the future, yes, we just can scale up. We can charge multiple drones at the same time within this same charging area. 

John Koetsier: Amazing. I want to get to some of the implications of that — what this enables, what this will unlock, where you’ll put stations, how much they cost, all that stuff.

But before we get into that, you have some new news that you want to talk about as well. It’s not just drones in the sky that you’re dealing with, you’re also looking at undersea drones, correct? Is that not correct? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, right, correct. We never talk about it yet, but yeah, we found out that this technology can be applied in the sea and in space. And we actually completed, recently completed a proof of concept design in our lab. We basically put a large swimming pool filled it with salt water to really match the density of salt which we have in the ocean to make the same condition. And then we built a system, high power system, to test the real efficiency in underwater application.

And surprisingly, we can achieve quite high efficiency there as well. And we can transmit many kilowatts of power, again, at a distance of a meter or couple of meters without any plug-in connection and things like that. And right now, companies specifically in [the] oil and gas industry, they use unmanned underwater vehicles to monitor their underwater assets.

And I think this could be a great market for this technology as well. 

John Koetsier: That’s really, really interesting, because of course, traditionally those have all been tethered, right? And so you have this …

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah.

John Koetsier: … long cable that this thing is trailing along, and you can deliver power through that and communications and all other things like that. But with a small unmanned vehicle, a cable gets very heavy and very hard to tow around very quickly. And of course you can get tangled if you’re like exploring, I don’t know, undersea oil and gas type equipment, or maybe wreckage or something like that. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: It’s really neat, because if you have some equipment that you know you want to inspect regularly, you don’t want to have to take your drone up to the surface, you know, spend 30 minutes come to the surface, charge for an hour, send it back down.

Leonid Plekhanov: 30 minutes is good! Sometimes it’s many hours because it’s a big vehicle. You need to undock it or whatever. And if you have again, you know, waves, wind, etc. it could be really difficult and … 

John Koetsier: Wow. So let’s talk about drones in the sky for a while, and let’s talk about what this capability unlocks. How do you see this wireless in-air charging working? Who will use it and where will you deploy it?

Leonid Plekhanov: Sure. Well, first of all, this is B2B, okay.

We think that this is a piece of high power wireless energy distribution infrastructure, and the idea is that we really want to build a network to connect people with the third dimension … with the sky.

And without having the need of, you know, to land and take off every 15 minutes, and speaking about specific application — well, first of all, this is [an] all-weather, through all weather autonomous charging system, because we don’t care if it’s rain, even snow, dust, humidity, whatever is happening, it just works same way. It’s efficient, it’s safe. Nothing can disturb this charging process, because companies which build landing platforms and things like that, that’s cool, but imagine so that it stays in the middle of nowhere for a year and who [is] gonna control if the landing area is in appropriate condition right now? What about dust?

John Koetsier: Yes.

 Leonid Plekhanov: What about rain and everything like that? Here it’s  just … area in the air. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yeah.

Leonid Plekhanov: So it’s always acceptable, you know? 

John Koetsier: Yes, no snow pack. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, yeah. And number two is fully autonomous, again, no precise positioning. It’s not tied to a specific type of drone. We can charge various kinds of drones. You just need those drones to be equipped with our sync system, and then you can charge your drone.

And another very important consideration here is security, because when [a] drone is landed, you basically lose control over your flying vehicle, and professional commercial drones were usually quite expensive and they have expensive equipment on board. And more importantly, they may have very sensitive data on board as well.

When a drone is landed you have no idea who can get access to it. So you either need to think about security perimeters, and then again, people or system or what, you know, who is gonna control this station.

Now, when it stays in the air, you keep 100% control of your mission.

You can interrupt this charging station without any negotiation or interaction with a charging station. You can just do it, that’s another important thing. And the last, but not least, well, FAA basically has a specific requirement that if a drone touches the ground, you need to make a number of pre-checks before you can take off.

John Koetsier: Oh, wow. 

Leonid Plekhanov: So, you mentioned that you need a — you have a long mission, right? If you touch the ground, okay, so now you need to check your flying vehicle. And some companies are now trying to avoid this by dropping these parcels, you know, without really touching anything, just to be compliant with that rule.

But here we just clearly do not try to even touch ground or anything. But still, by the way, you can land. I mean, some people ask, ‘Oh, okay if I want to land still in the center of your charging station?’ Yes, no problem, you can do that.

But we believe that this mid-flight charging is really what can bring this autonomous application and drone-based services to the next level. And we envision a network of stations like this in cities and in crowded areas so that time flight and distance within the network can be literally unlimited. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Leonid Plekhanov: You can wait if required. You can try a second delivery attempt. Your security drone from the police department can stay hovering as long as you need, you know, and all that kind of applications. 

John Koetsier: What’s really interesting to me as well, is that this is a pretty lightweight installation. I mean, I’m just scrolling through your video here and there’s a sort of a pretty close up view of what you’ve got. I mean, that’s a pretty lightweight installation. It needs power, but it’s not, you know, it might be a hundred kilograms, a couple hundred kilograms something like that, it’s not huge.

You can easily put that on a roof. You can put that on roofs around the place. And that means you’ve got not only some level of security because the drone doesn’t touch down, doesn’t land on the ground, it’s also out of the way and possibly not even ever noticed by anybody either as well.

So, a pretty powerful way of doing it actually.

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah. And actually by the way, you can also deploy it, say, in the back of a truck. It could be a mobile installation if you have a generator, you can kind of deploy a mobile network. Again, depends on your need and your use case, but that’s the possibility as well. 

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about what this looks like potentially in, sheesh, I don’t know, maybe five years or something like that.

Do you think that there could be something like a network of these around Seattle, around San Francisco, around wherever you might be based as well, and that Amazon, for instance, could use these just to recharge and its drones to just keep going?

Do you envision something like that in the fairly near future? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Absolutely, and that’s our long term development strategy.

So we believe, so we think about ourselves not as a drone company, but, as I mentioned, as a wireless power infrastructure company. So our idea is that we can deploy this kind of wireless power networks in big cities, like you mentioned, you know, Seattle, New York, whatever.

And for a big city, you probably need 100 of such stations, which is not a really big deal for a city with millions and millions of people. And then a same network can be utilized by many, many companies, you know, for needs and services and applications, whatever they [are] going to do.

So, yeah, that’s exactly our vision and our goal. 

John Koetsier: Do you have some kind of security or are you building some kind of security so that no unauthorized drone can just come there and start charging? Is there some kind of handshake, you know, how do you “pay for the gas,” so to speak?

Leonid Plekhanov: Well, yeah sure. I mean they may try, but actually there is a data channel between transmitter and receiver. So they talk to each other and they basically offer [a] charging session.

And until [a] charging session is requested by the drone and then initiated by the charging station, it does not produce or generate any power. So anyway, there is no way to steal power or do something like that. It’s just impossible.

John Koetsier: One thing that came to my mind as I was just considering this technology, is that what we saw in the beginning of, let’s say, the car era, was who was going to be the first to drive, let’s say from coast to coast, right? Atlantic to Pacific.

Who in the airplane era, who was going to be the first to go trans-Atlantic, right? Those sorts of things.

It’ll be very interesting to see a challenge to take a drone, you know, a standard commercial drone and fly from LA or San Francisco all the way to New York or something like that.

That would be very challenging. It’d be very difficult. You might have to have mobile stations for, I don’t know, the prairie Midwest States or something like that. But that would be interesting. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, I agree. And actually, in this specific scenario, we may also think about sort of lanes of such stations or [a] chain, you know, then you don’t have this network deployed like in the big area, but there’s a chain one after another and now every 10 or 20 miles.

And then you just jump from one to another, unless you can really travel a big distance between [a] couple locations, say between your warehouse and another distribution center, for example. And also, actually right now, we are speaking with companies who own a big industrial infrastructure, like solar power, power plants, for example.

John Koetsier:  Right.

Leonid Plekhanov: And they use drones to monitor [the] surface of their solar panels because in case of even tiny, you know, degradation, they may cause burns: the entire layer burns out.

And if they use drones to monitor its service, imagine such a station, a couple of them around the power plant, then you can do much more frequent flying — basically 24 hours a day if you need. And that would be a kind of application as well. 

John Koetsier: That’d be interesting as well for huge farms in the States, other places around the world also, because farmers use a lot of drones actually. They have a lot of area to cover and some of their drones have specific software to detect how crops are doing, how they’re not doing. If you’ve got a massive farm, you might need to charge up halfway through or something like that, could be interesting.

There’s a lot to think about for implementing technology like this, right? There’s obviously the hardware layer. There’s multiple layers of software as well.

What do you think we’ll need in terms of making this operational? I mean, if you project out, I don’t know what it’s going to be — it’s probably not 5 years, maybe it’s 10, maybe it’s 20, I don’t know — but we do see a future coming when you might have thousands of drones flying around a city. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Absolutely, yeah.

John Koetsier: And what kind of software do we need to kind of coordinate that? To let them know where they can go, where they can’t go, or where others are, or other things like that? 

Leonid Plekhanov: Well, actually right now, there are many companies and I would say many players in this area who are specifically focused on this kind of a problem. They build systems to make this automated routine and negotiating of paths, and ways, and tracks of different drones.

And we consider that we just need to provide for them a certain interface, so that they can take into account, okay, this wireless charging capability, and then they may [know] it, okay, at this point we have a charging spot, this point we have a charging spot, and there and there and there. And then they can build the right route for the drone taking into account its flight time, battery capacity, whatever. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Leonid Plekhanov: Because while it’s a really completely separate task to make this drone fleet management system.

And I believe what we actually [do], we really simplify that process because with our system those companies now may know that, okay, they have a certain number of points and if drone stays in this point — just stays in the air, okay, no need to land on it to build any type of precision landing whatever system. Just staying in the air for a few minutes and then you’re filling your battery, and then you can fly and continue the mission … that makes the whole difference I believe.

John Koetsier: Yeah, absolutely makes it a lot simpler because you have the traveling salesman problem, right? How do I get to all my points easily? And if you have to continually come back to a base station to refuel, recharge, you make that exponentially harder. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, yeah. And it actually brings an additional grade of security to a drone in general, because one of the biggest problem[s] is that okay, big carry drone, you know, goes on its mission and then something happened to the battery. Now accidentally the capacity of a battery drops and then what are you going to do? 

John Koetsier: Here’s your load!

Leonid Plekhanov: Here if you can [get to] a station somewhere close by you, just go to you can just stay there hover, charge quickly again. So it really gives an additional degree to the safety concern of drone iterations. 

John Koetsier: Any electric car owner who’s had range anxiety will understand exactly what you’re talking about. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Haha, yeah.

John Koetsier: So, put on that wizard hat a second, look into your crystal ball. To make drone deliveries as well as drone inspections and all that other stuff really makes sense, how many of these stations do you think you need?

You said it could be a couple hundred in a major city, you know, how many do you think it would be in across, let’s say a nation?

Leonid Plekhanov: Well, for a big city, say few million population, in general, I would say 100 is kind of great to think about.

Again, depends on the density of [the] drone fleet of course. It could be 200 or 300 at some point, but generally 100 provides you good coverage to really cover [an] entire city and have enough flexibility. So then yeah, you can just multiply it, given a number of big cities and then probably a few thousand of such stations may cover all major cities in a big country. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. Very interesting. It’s kind of similar to the Tesla building out superchargers, but less expensive I would think. Excellent. Well, I want to thank you for being on the show. It has been really, really, really interesting. 

Leonid Plekhanov: Yeah, glad to be here. Thanks for inviting, thanks so much. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name, of course, is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this in a couple days, maybe a week, at JohnKoetsier.com.

The full story at Forbes will come shortly thereafter, and the video is always available on YouTube as well. Thanks for joining, maybe share with a friend. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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