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Aircraft that can take off and land directly without the need for a runway – such as helicopters and quadcopters – are attractive for personal, commercial and military applications as they require less physical space and infrastructure compared to traditional fixed-wing planes.

However, rotary winged aircraft are significantly less efficient at generating lift compared to their fixed-wing counterparts. Hence, while there have been examples of solar airplanes in recent years, a viable 100 percent solar rotary aircraft that can take-off and land vertically remains a major engineering challenge to date.

A team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Engineering has developed Asia’s first fully solar-powered quadcopter drone. The aircraft has flown above 10 metres in test flights and achieved controllable flight without the use of batteries, solely by natural sunlight.

This solar-powered drone can take-off and land vertically without a runway. Constructed using lightweight carbon fiber material, the quadcopter drone weighs only 2.6 kg, and has a surface area of about 4 sqm. It is fitted with 148 individually characterised silicon solar cells and supported by a frame equipped with four rotors, according to phys.org.

The solar-powered quadcopter drone can be controlled by remote control or programmed to fly autonomously using a GPS system incorporated into the aircraft. The aircraft can potentially be used as a ‘flying solar panel’ to provide emergency solar power to disaster areas, as well as for photography, small package delivery, surveillance and inspection.

Batteries can be incorporated to power the aircraft when there is no sunlight or for charging to take place during flight to enable operation when it is cloudy or dark..

The team will continue to fine-tune the aircraft to further improve its efficiency. With these enhancements, they hope to bring the technology closer to commercialisation.