Innovation Profile: Skysense Charging Pad – One Step Closer to Autonomous Drones

Multicopter charging padBy Nicolas Goller

As drones become more popular and more widespread, they continue to be held back by the substantial amount of power needed to keep them aloft. Replacing batteries every half an hour is inconvenient at best. The innovative charging pad from German start-up Skysense looks to eliminate the hassle involved with keeping a drone aloft.

Skysense is based in Berlin, Germany and was founded by Andrea Puiatti and Michele Dallachiesa. Andrea has experience in marketing and sales while Michele has a PhD in computer science. Both have previously founded two companies.

The pad is made up of gold plates that ensure steady contact. Landing drones need to have a proper setup such that they make contact with the gold plates and then charging can begin. The technology can apparently be setup to work with pretty much any multicopter or VTOL (vertical take off and land) aircraft currently on the market. Skysense demoed their product at CES (Consumer Electronics Show), arguably the largest electronics trade show in the world, in January 2015. They have a partnership with Parrot and are a member of Start-Up Chile. Their product has captured the attention of many, but we have yet to see if it can become a mainstream drone accessory.

A simple power cable provides power to the pad and can be plugged into an outlet. The design makes sense, is very simple, and seems very robust. The simplicity of this technology is precisely what makes it so appealing. The device is said to be usable outdoors even in rainy conditions. The wires are probably the most vulnerable part of the device as they can easily be subject to chewing and corrosion.

UAV charging

Even though this technology might make it a bit easier for a human to fly drones around, its implications for autonomous recharging and control are much more significant. When asked about the applications of the Skysense Charging Pad, CEO Andrea Puiatti mentioned that there is “a strong interest from inspection, surveillance, of oil and gas pipelines, power lines, wind turbines, and solar power” companies.

The current means of charging drones are certainly more complicated than simply landing on a pad and waiting. Puiatti boldly claims that “What you have out of the box right now with this charging pad, is a solution to remove human intervention in remote areas. To take off and land and take off again.” He mentions that it should not be difficult for drones to land and charge autonomously through GPS way-pointing and image processing. Unfortunately the charging pad will still need to have access to a power source.

A further innovation might use the pad as a solar panel to store energy and then transfer that energy to drones in a similar manner. Then the device would be much more self sufficient and wide-reaching. This would obviously be a different product with a more extreme set of uses, but if companies are using drones to target hard to reach places, then something a bit more self-contained might be preferable.

Adjustments aside, as of March 2015, consumers can now purchase these golden charging stations. They come in eighteen, thirty-six, and seventy-two square inch sizes with prices starting at $1,130, $2,410, and $7,865, respectively. As these pads cost at least as much as most smaller drones currently on the market, it seems unlikely that hobbyists will be major purchasers. Puiatti’s comments and the pricing and sizes suggest that Skysense is targeting organizations that can afford to shell out several thousand dollars to make their drone operations more efficient and automated.

Puiatti mentioned to the Berliner Morgenpost that Skysense is looking to Australia and the United States for their market because drone technology is two to three years ahead of Europe there. Interestingly, in November 2014, Skysense was planning on selling slightly smaller landing pads at a substantially cheaper rate. This change is perhaps a result of unseen costs or a reevaluation of which groups the company wants to target. Higher prices and larger pads suggest Skysense is looking to sell to larger scale drone operations.

Several other companies are also looking at charging solutions for drones beyond what is currently available. For example, Solace power, A Canadian company that has partnered with Boeing has demonstrated  wireless charging capabilities using resonant capacitive coupling. This technology, while still making use of a plate, does not require physical contact. This could have applications beyond what the Skysense charging pad is capable of. For example, a drone might be able to continuously perform tasks in a factory over a large wireless charging pad. Something Skysense technology cannot claim to achieve. Despite these possible uses, the Solace technology does not seem particularly useful at the moment as in most cases in a factory, some kind of other robot would probably be able to perform the same tasks.

It will be interesting to see if the Skysense charging pad takes off. Perhaps a future where completely autonomous drones are flying across the world, delivering packages, providing internet service, mapping out terrain, exploring dangerous areas, collecting meteorological data, and fighting wars is not so far away.