Every device needs a power source to function.
Today we’re going to dive into what these power sources are for drones, some advantages, disadvantages, and examples of each of them that have been used to power real drones.
We’ll also briefly look over the devices and the different types of fuel drones use for propulsion.
This article will include underwater, ground-based and aerial drones.
To fully explain how drones are powered, we’ve separated the answer into several sections.
Here are the 6 energy sources used to power drones:
- Combustion engines
- Hydrogen fuel cells
- Solar power
- Drone tethers
- Laser power beaming
- 1:What Types Of Batteries Are Used In Drones?
- 2:What Types Of Combustion Engines Are Used In Drones?
- How are combustion engines used to power drones?
- What are the advantages of using combustion engines to power drones?
- What are the disadvantages of using combustion engines to power drones?
- What are some examples of drones powered by combustion engines?
- 3:How Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells Used To Power Drones?
- 4:What Types Of Solar Power Systems Are There?
- 5:How Are Tethers Used To Power Drones?
- 6:How Is Laser Power Beaming Used To Power Drones?
- What Types Of Fuel Are Used in Drones?
- Here Are Some More Devices Used In Drones For Propulsion
- What Are The Most Efficient Drone Power Sources?
- What Are The Most Eco-Friendly Drone Power Sources?
1:What Types Of Batteries Are Used In Drones?
The most common power source in drones is batteries. This is especially the case in consumer drones specifically.
There are several types of batteries used. Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Here are 7 types of batteries used in drones:
- Lithium-Polymer (LiPo)
- Lithium-Ion (Li-ion)
- Nickel Cadmium (NiCd)
- Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)
- Lead Acid (Pb-acid)
- Zinc-Air Batteries (ZABs)
The most common types of batteries used in drones today are Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) and Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) batteries.
We recommend checking out our full post on how long drone batteries last where we dive into average flight times for both consumer and commercial drones, battery life expectancies, why drones have short flight times, how to increase both, and more:
Batteries are used most often to power consumer and commercial drones.
How are batteries used to power drones?
Batteries act as a source of power for underwater drones, drones that operate on the ground, and aerial drones.
Every battery stores chemical energy which it’s capable of converting into electrical energy through a series of chemical reactions.
These chemical reactions involve the flow of electrons from a negatively charged electrode (anode) to a positively charged electrode (cathode). This process creates electrical energy.
The electrolyte allows the electrode to keep a constant neutral charge which is essential for this entire system to function.
This is just a simplified explanation of how batteries work. Click here for a much more in-depth explanation.
What are the advantages of using batteries to power drones?
Batteries are some of the most popular devices used to power drones for good reason. There are many advantages to using batteries as a power source.
Here are 5 advantages of using batteries to power drones:
- Drone batteries are very portable due to their relatively small sizes and light weights
- Drone batteries are easy to attach to and remove from a drone for recharging
- Most drone batteries have high energy efficiency in their compact bodies
- Drone batteries cause little to no noise and air pollution
- Drone batteries can be molded into almost any shape and size depending on the drone’s frame
Check out our post where we dive into whether the size of a drone matters, the differences between the two, the different drone sizes, some examples of both small and large drones, and more:
What are the disadvantages of using batteries to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using batteries to power drones:
- Drone batteries are dangerous as they could catch fire if not properly taken care of
- Drone batteries are not as powerful as alternatives which leads to low flight times (low maximum capacity)
- Drone batteries have slow recharge speeds
- Drone batteries can cost a significant amount of money
- Drone batteries have relatively short life expectancies before they need to be replaced adding to their overall costs
We have a detailed post where we dive into several honest reasons why you shouldn’t buy a drone:
What are some examples of drones powered by batteries?
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by batteries:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Battery Type||Max Operating Time|
|RQ-14 Dragon Eye||AeroVironment||Zinc-Air||1h|
|Trinity F90+||Quantum Systems||Li-ion||90min|
2:What Types Of Combustion Engines Are Used In Drones?
Combustion engines are primarily used to power military and commercial drones. Aerial drones are most often equipped with this type of power source.
Here are the 4 types of combustion engines used in drones:
- Gas/combustion turbine engines
- Rotary engines
- Piston/reciprocating engines
- Hybrid engines
Check out our detailed post where we dive into how VTOL drones work, the types of VTOL drones according to flight modes, designs, and propulsion methods, their costs, how much they weigh, their payload capacities, use cases, examples, and more:
How are combustion engines used to power drones?
Here is a short section explaining how each type of engine mentioned above works.
How do gas/combustion turbine engines work?
Gas/combustion turbine engines use the pressure from the exploding fuel to rotate a turbine and produce thrust.
Gas/combustion turbine engines include:
- Turbofan engines
- Turbojet engines
- Turboprop engines
- Turboshaft engines
How do piston/reciprocating engines work?
Piston/reciprocating engines convert pressure into a rotating motion using pistons.
How do rotary engines work?
Rotary engines include engines such as the Wankel, gasoline, and diesel engines. The rotor inside the engine moves from one chamber to another, expanding and contracting gas.
How do hybrid engines work?
Hybrid engines use most often a combination of gas and electricity. These engines either use diesel or gasoline with an electric motor that is powered using a battery or something similar.
What are the advantages of using combustion engines to power drones?
Here are 5 advantages of using combustion engines to power drones:
- Combustion engines enable drones to have much longer flight times than drones powered by batteries
- Combustion engines are often small and compact
- Combustion engines are capable of widthstanding harsh conditions
- The fuel required to power combustion engines are generally widely available
- Combustion engines take a short period of time to re-fuel
If you’d like to learn all about the various drone speeds for different types of drones, check out our detailed post below:
What are the disadvantages of using combustion engines to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using combustion engines to power drones:
- Combustion engines pollute the environment as they emit harmful gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxides (N2O)
- Combustion engines cause the body of the drone to vibrate which can negatively impact the drone’s stability and camera footage
- Combustion engines require regular maintenance in order to ensure they function properly which can get expensive
- The fuel used in combustion engines such as gasoline is expensive
- Combustion engines are very dangerous as they can catch fire and sometimes explode if not properly cooled
What are some examples of drones powered by combustion engines?
The following drones will primarily be military and commercial as consumer/hobby drones are not often powered using combustion engines.
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by combustion engines:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Type Of Engine||Max Flight Time|
|MQ-8B Fire Scout||Northrop Grumman||Turboshaft||8h|
|MQ-9 Reaper||General Atomics||Turboprop||14h|
|Vanilla||Vanilla Unmanned||Diesel (Rotary)||240h (10days)|
|Global Hawk||Northrop Grumman||Turbofan||32h+|
If you’d like to discover more about who the best drone companies are in the world for the consumer, commercial and military drone markets and some fun facts about them, we have a full post on this topic below:
3:How Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells Used To Power Drones?
There are several types of fuel cells used in drones. These include proton-exchange membrane fuel cells, direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC), electric storage fuel cells (ESFC), and solid acid fuel cells (SAFC).
This section will only focus on the proton-exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) as this is the type of fuel cell that is most commonly used in drones today.
PEM fuel cells are capable of being used in unmanned aerial systems (UAS), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and even in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
All fuel cells work in similar manners. They all have an anode, electrolyte, and cathode.
Once the fuel used for that fuel cell is added, two chemical reactions will occur which will generate an electrical current and also emit either water or carbon dioxide.
Fuel cells are most often used to power aircraft and electric cars. The fuel used in fuel cells is most often hydrogen, therefore this section will only be referring to fuel cells that use hydrogen as fuel.
What are the advantages of using hydrogen fuel cells to power drones?
Here are 5 advantages of using hydrogen fuel cells to power drones:
- Hydrogen fuel cells can generally provide up to three times the endurance compared to a drone that is powered by batteries
- Hydrogen fuel cells can be quickly removed and replaced increasing their efficiency and also have incredible fast charging speeds
- Hydrogen fuel cells are very reliable if properly maintained
- Hydrogen is readily available around the world therefore easy to obtain
- Fuel cells have a 60% energy efficieny. This refers to how quickly they go from a full charge to being fully discharged
What are the disadvantages of using hydrogen fuel cells to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using hydrogen fuel cells to power drones:
- Hydrogen fuel cells are very expensive
- Hydrogen fuel cells are dangerous as hydrogen is both flammable, odorless and harmful if breathed in
- Hydrogen fuel cells are difficult to store and transport due to specific requirements that need to be monitored such as temperature
- Hydrogen is difficult to obtain and requires the use of fuels such as fossil fuels, water, or others
- The size of the hydrogen fuel cell is generally larger than the average battery pack meaning it may not fit smaller drones
What are some examples of drones powered by hydrogen fuel cells?
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by hydrogen fuel cells:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Max Operating Time|
|DF20||Doosan Mobility Innovation||2.5h|
|H2Quad 400||EnergyOr||3h 45min|
|DJ25||Doosan Mobility Innovation||4.5h|
|Ion Tiger||Naval Research Laboratory (NRL)||48h|
4:What Types Of Solar Power Systems Are There?
Solar energy is used to power both ground and aerial drones. These types of drones are usually used either commercially or in the military.
Since solar panels need to be attached to a large enough flat surface on the drone, solar power is most often used for fixed-wing drones due to their long wings.
Here are the two main types of solar power systems:
- Photovoltaic (PV) systems
- Concentrating solar power (CSP) systems
How Is Solar Energy Used To Power Drones?
Solar power works by converting solar radiation (light from the sun) into electrical energy.
The current generated by the solar cells is then either directly used to power the drone or is transferred to a battery which then powers the drone or stores it for later use (when the sun is no longer shining).
Photovoltaic (PV) systems work by capturing sunlight with each PV cell located in a solar panel.
Each solar panel has an internal electrical field which enables the light that has been converted into electricity to flow through to the device it is powering.
Concentrating solar power (CSP) systems work by capturing sunlight using mirrors that reflect that heat onto receivers.
There are multiple configurations used to maximize the amount of energy it can absorb.
Here is a short video that shows and explains this process:
Learn more about solar technology here.
What are the advantages of using solar energy to power drones?
Here are 5 advantages of using solar energy to power drones:
- Solar energy can function in most climates
- Solar panels are fairly durable allowing for them to last many years if properly maintained
- Solar energy uses renewable energy that is the sun
- Solar panels are very quiet
- Solar energy reduces emissions compared to non-electrical power systems
What are the disadvantages of using solar energy to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using solar energy to power drones:
- Solar panels need to have a large surface area in order to sufficiently power a drone
- Solar panels are much heavier than other power sources
- Solar panels are still expensive even with prices dropping every year
- Solar energy can only generate electricity when the sun is out
- Chemicals that are harmful for the environment such as sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid are used in the manufacturing process of solar panels
What are some examples of drones powered by solar energy?
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by solar energy:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Type Of Drone||Max Operating Time|
|Silent Falcon UAS||Silent Falcon+Bye Aerospace||Fixed-wing||12h|
|Zephyr 8/Zephyr S||Airbus||Fixed-wing||25days 23h 57min|
|SolarEagle (Vulture II)||Boeing||Fixed-wing||Project goal: 3 months|
|Opportunity||NASA||UGV||~4h per Martian day|
5:How Are Tethers Used To Power Drones?
You may be wondering, what are tethers and how are they used to power drones?
A tether is a cable containing wires that sends electricity from a power station straight to the device it’s attached to. This allows the operator to provide power and to communicate with the device to control it.
This type of power source is most often used in underwater remotely piloted vehicles (ROVs) but has also been used in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs).
Check out our full post that explains what the differences are between drones, UAVs, and UAS where we also dive into many of the various acronyms used to describe every type of drone:
What are the advantages of using tethers to power drones?
Here are 5 advantages of using tethers to power drones:
- Tethered drones can achieve very long operating times
- Tethers ensure you will not lose communication with your drone as they don’t rely on wireless methods of data transmission
- Tethered drones prevent drones from driving or flying away if there is a glitch in the system
- Tethered drones are very safe to operate and are very reliable
- Some countries won’t require you to register these types of drones as they are not considered free-flying vehicles
If you’d like to find out a little bit about how deep underwater ROVs can go, whether this refers to consumer or professional drones not available to the public, then check out our post on this topic here:
What are the disadvantages of using tethers to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using tethers to power drones:
- Tethered drones have limited range that’s entirely dependent on the length of the tether
- Tethered drones can pursue limited paths due to obstacles that can obstruct the tether
- Long cables (tethers) can become frustrating to deal with if the process of releasing and retracting the cable is not automatic
- Transporting these types of drones is more of a challenge then transporting untethered drones
- Tethered drone missions will cost much more than the average costs associated with untethered drone missions
What are some examples of drones powered by tethers?
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by tethers:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Type Of Drone||Max Operating Time|
|Kite 75-Tethered||Vector Birds||Aerial||20h+|
6:How Is Laser Power Beaming Used To Power Drones?
Laser power beaming is a fairly new technology that is utilized in certain classes of aerial and underwater vehicles.
The first step in this process involves a power supply that is used to convert electricity into a laser beam.
This laser is then directed at an aerial or underwater drone that is equipped with a receiver that is in the form of a modified photovoltaic (PV) solar panel.
The light is then converted back into electricity thus powering the drone.
This technology has been primarily commercialized by the company PowerLight Technologies.
Here is an interesting post explaining if lasers can actually take down drones here:
Related Post: Can A Laser Pointer Take Down A Drone?
What are the advantages of using laser power beaming to power drones?
Here are 5 advantages of using laser power beaming to power drones:
- Laser power boaming allows a drone to be charged wirelessly from almost any location as long as there is a ground station present
- Laser power beaming enables a drone to stay in the air for a lot longer than the average propulsion systems used in most drones
- Using lasers gets rid of potential radio frequency interferences increasing reliability between the drone and the operator
- Laser power beaming saves operators from needing to land the drone to replace a drained battery or to simply charge one
- Laser power beaming is fairly safe for humans and animals alike with the various safety precausions being put in place including the advanced safety systems present in these devices
Click here for a much more detailed analysis of laser power beaming technology.
What are the disadvantages of using laser power beaming to power drones?
Here are 5 disadvantages of using laser power beaming to power drones:
- The laser will have a limited range and will need to be at a specific distance from the receiver
- Bad weather can negatively impact the efficieny of the laser and can even prevent it from functioning altogether in severe conditions
- The laser beam will need to accurately track the photovoltaic (PV) cell in order to charge the device. This can become very difficult with small drones
- The powerful lasers used in this process will slowly heat up the device it is powering
- Laser power beaming technology still has a ways to go before becoming fully efficient
What are some examples of drones that use laser power beaming?
Here are 3 examples of drones that use laser power beaming:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Max Operating Time|
|Silent Falcon||Silent Falcon UAS Technologies+Bye Aerospace||12h+|
|Stalker||Lockheed Martin+PowerLight Technologies||48h+|
|Experimental Fixed-Wing Power Beaming UAV||NASA||?|
What Types Of Fuel Are Used in Drones?
There are many types of fuel (including alternative fuel) that are used in drones.
These types of fuel include:
- Jet fuel
- Nitro fuel
- Compressed natural gas (CNG)
- Gas/electric hybrids
We’ve split this category up into two categories:
- Fuel used in consumer drones
- Fuel used in commercial and military drones
If you’d like to learn all about consumer drones, we have a full post on this topic below:
What types of fuel are most commonly used in consumer drones?
Electricity is most often used for underwater and aerial drones while nitro fuel is most often used for ground-based drones.
Electricity is used in the form of batteries in most cases or solar energy as these types of fuel provide a high energy output while maintaining optimum efficiency and have relatively low costs.
Check out our post on cheap vs expensive drones where we go into how good cheap and expensive drones are, how hard they are to fly and how long they can fly for, and the main differences between the two:
What types of fuel are most commonly used in commercial and military drones?
Hydrogen, gasoline/petrol, and jet fuel are types of fuel that are most commonly used in commercial and military drones.
This section includes underwater, ground-based, and aerial drones.
If you’d like to learn more on the different types of drones including the types according to design, payload, range, power source, and use cases including some examples of both consumer, commercial and military drones, then check out our full post below:
What are some examples of drones powered by fuel?
Here are 5 examples of drones powered by fuel:
|Drone Name||Manufacturer||Type Of Fuel||Max Operating Time|
|Penguin C||UAV Factory||Gasoline/Petrol||20h|
|Silent Falcon||Silent Falcon UAS Technologies+Bye Aerospace||Solar Power||12h|
|VX-1 KittyHawk||VX Aerospace||Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)||?|
|Dragonfish||Autel Robotics||LIPO Battery||2h|
|Revo 3.3||Traxxas||Nitro Fuel||~15min|
Here Are Some More Devices Used In Drones For Propulsion
Here are four other devices used in drones for propulsion:
- Flight controller (FC)
- Electronic speed controller (ESC)
We have a full post that goes into detail about each component used in drones and their materials (including some examples of drones and their materials):
What Are The Most Efficient Drone Power Sources?
Not every power source is efficient. Some are actually very inefficient.
Drone batteries are still considered one of the most efficient power sources as they are capable of providing a large amount of power to the aircraft for a relatively long period of time.
The most efficient types of batteries are LiPo and Li-air batteries.
Fuel cells are also very efficient but are not considered as efficient as batteries as they cannot output as much power as batteries but can last for much longer.
Solar power is only efficient if the surface area of the photovoltaic (PV) solar panel is large enough to enable the drone to take in enough light from the sun.
Laser power beaming is fairly efficient but this will primarily depend on how much energy is lost the further the laser travels before reaching its destination.
Diesel engines are by far the most efficient engines out of all combustion engines.
It is very hard to get precise measurements on how efficient a power source will be due to the sheer amount of factors that cannot be accounted for while using the vehicle in a real-world scenario.
These factors will include things such as the size and weight of the aircraft, the environmental conditions, the physical conditions of both the aircraft and the power source being used, and finally the overall cost.
We have a full post on drone sizing where we go into not only the various sizes drones come in, but we also talk about whether the size of a drone matters, consumer, commercial, and military drone sizes, how to measure the frame size of a drone and much more:
What Are The Most Eco-Friendly Drone Power Sources?
Most electric power sources are eco-friendly due to their reduced emissions. This includes batteries, solar power, and laser power beaming.
Since different power sources have different advantages and disadvantages, many hybrid drones have been created to benefit from several energy sources at the same time and possibly create the ultimate single propulsion system.
This is why there are hybrid drones such as solar and battery hybrids that power motors connected to propellers.
We highly recommend you check out our full detailed post on drone propellers including the different types, how they work, their different sizes and pitch, their materials, how to choose them, and much more.
Drones can be powered using various technologies that all have their individual ups and downs.
The source of energy that is chosen for a drone will be determined by both its overall efficiency and the intended applications the drone will be used for.
We hope this fully answered your question. If not, feel free to email us at email@example.com to add in what we forgot!