Flying forever

Wilson’s world

David Wilson is editor of Engineeringtalk and Electronicstalk, and contributing editor to The Engineer

I knew that my son would love the Gyro Lite radio-controlled helicopter that I bought him for Christmas and I wasn’t mistaken. But despite the fact that the literature that promoted the product on the distributor’s website clearly stated that it would work straight out of the box, that wasn’t quite the case.

After the vehicle had been carefully removed from its packaging, it became obvious that a set of AA batteries would need to be inserted into the infrared remote-control unit, after which the helicopter itself would then need to be charged up prior to its maiden flight.

This, of course, was no problem for my son, who filched any AA batteries he could find from any number of products that were laying around the house for the remote-control unit, while setting the helicopter to charge up for an hour from the USB port of his notebook computer.

Then it was all systems go, as the helicopter was put though its paces in the garden, soaring to the height of a large Australian gum tree before crashing in through a window to scare the life out of my daughter who had opened it simply to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary whirlybird in action.

Sadly, of course, being a rather small radio-controlled helicopter, the power source in the device wasn’t capable of providing power for more than around eight minutes and so a series of repeated charging cycles was essential to ensure that the entertainment value of the product could be maximised late into that cold Christmas evening.

After the holiday ballyhoo was over and the children had returned safely back to their own abodes, I had a brainwave. That’s right. I came up with an idea that would obviate the need for the helicopter to be brought down from the skies to be recharged ever again!

My idea was simple enough, like all really good ideas are. I would transfer energy wirelessly to the helicopter over a distance using lasers. The helicopter, appropriately fitted out with photovoltaic cells, would then convert the laser light into electricity that would power it for an indefinite period of time.

I was certain that the concept would, at the very least, provide me with enough income to retire to a tropical island surrounded by beautiful fauna and flora. But it was not to be. Because, like a lot of my ideas, this one had already been perfected – this time by a US outfit called LaserMotive, an independent research and development company that specialises in so-called laser power beaming.

That’s right. And not content to have actually developed the laser power beaming technology, the engineers at the Seattle-based company have even demonstrated its efficacy by working with the German firm of Ascending Technologies to build a free-flying quadrocopter that has flown for more than 12 hours within a square of 2 x 2m – the longest flight of a small UAV during its record flight.

Sadly, then, it now looks as if my dreams of untold riches will not come to fruition. Unless, of course, I can develop a somewhat more elegant means to power the radio-controlled helicopter over a wider range.

Dave Wilson

The Wilson’s world blog also forms part of the Engineeringtalk, Electronicstalk and Manufacturingtalk newsletters. To subscribe, go here for Engineeringtalk, here for Electronicstalk and here for Manufacturingtalk.