Solar-powered drones could deliver goods in rural areas, charged by micro-solar home systems

I don’t often get excited about drones, but when I do, they’re ones powered by a network of home solar arrays and enabling home delivery in the developing world.

As a fellow sufferer of Shiny Object Syndrome, also known as early adopter fetishism, I can see why drones, or perhaps more accurately UAVs, attract so much attention these days. When a device can push all the right buttons like this, such as smartphone control, semi-autonomous flight, the ability to act as a hi-def video and sensor platform as a tool for citizen scientists/journalists, and can do so at an affordable price, it can open the doors for a lot of new applications for the technology. And while I’m not really interested in drone deliveries from Amazon or any other retailer for myself, I do think that using unmanned aerial vehicles for deliveries in rural and off-grid areas can have significantly more benefits for people than when used in the developed world.

However, one big issue for electric-powered anything when going off the grid, with drones being no exception, is the need to regularly recharge their batteries. And what better way to provide power to delivery drones in rural areas than through an existing network of solar charging systems, which could serve as tiny hubs for expanding the area reachable by these little flying robots.

One company, which has already been making huge inroads in renewable energy in rural Africa, is looking to do just that, and to expand its business by coupling its micro-solar arrays with charging stations for delivery drones. The company, Mobisol, currently has more 30,000 of its home solar systems installed in Tanzania and Rwanda, which are distributed via a rent-to-own agreement that can be paid off in about 3 years (and which can be paid for using a mobile phone).

By integrating some of these solar customers into a drone-charging network, Mobisol aims to leapfrog over “infrastructural deficits” in rural regions, and to offer these customers a financial incentive (credits on their account) for using some of their excess power to charge the drones.

Here’s how it would work:

“During the pilot phase we will evaluate customer acceptance and analyze technical constraints. In order to address the issues of recharge capabilities and bridging larger distances, we are utilizing the already existing and ever growing network of our solar home systems in East Africa as recharge hubs.

The operation is carbon free, powered by the sun; and it creates decentralized income as customers are provided with an additional stream of income by charging the copters with their solar system’s electricity. The project underlines the vast possibilities for Mobisol in the off-grid market and the many opportunities for innovation to create leap-frogs, saving resources – and again improving the lives of our customers while contributing to world wide climate change mitigation.” (Mobisol)

But wait, it gets even better. What if these same solar-powered drones could deliver more solar panels and charging system components? Woah. Then all we’d need is an autonomous factory cranking out more drones and solar panels and batteries, and we could get micro-solar setups delivered to rural areas all over the world.

I, for one, will welcome our new solar-powered drone overlords as they deliver additional solar arrays to those living in energy poverty.

What I’m not so jazzed about is someone building an Uber-for-solar-phone-charging service with these drones, so the guy next to me at the coffeeshop doesn’t have to leave his seat looking for a power outlet


Derek Markham is writer and lives in New Mexico.


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