Greentech finds out how drones could revolutionise renewable energy thanks to Ampyx Power’s innovative technology.
As the world transitions to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, all sorts of new applications are being discovered for drones. In the wind energy industry, they’re increasingly being used as a nifty device for quickly, cheaply and safely inspecting turbines for defects, cutting out the need for dangerous manual labour and ensuring a reliable power supply.
But whizzing up into the air on an inspection job isn’t all drones are good for; drones themselves could be the power supply. Dutch startup Ampyx Power is using cutting-edge drone technology to supercharge a century-old idea, sending unmanned aircraft up into the sky to harness wind energy. It’s an efficient, eco-friendly and democratic solution to our energy crisis that aims to bring clean power to communities the world over – and could cause us to rethink the need for turbines altogether.
When flying a kite at Noordwijk beach in the Netherlands, Wubbo Ockels, a Dutch astronaut and professor at Technical University Delft (TU Delft), discovered that he burned his hand when the line slipped. It was this eureka moment that led Ockels to pursue research into how this force could be converted into energy. He formed a team at TU Delft to work on developing a kite that could harvest electricity from the sky.
In fact, the recipe for Airborne Wind Energy was first dreamed up in the early twentieth century, and published by Miles L. Loyd in 1980, but it was missing some key ingredients for a long time before it could be made into a reality. With the arrival of the new millenium came lighter materials and computer systems that could fit into a mini-chip, rather than taking up a whole room.
Put together, what do these two things make? You guessed it: drones. One of the members of Ockels’s team, Richard Ruiterkamp, had the ingenious idea of replacing the kite with a fixed wing aircraft. And with that, Ampyx Power was born.
So how does it work? Well, it’s an idea that makes perfect sense. In the classical wind turbine concept, only a small fraction of the structure (namely the blade tips) generates the majority of the power output. Ampyx Power cuts the turbine loose, sending autonomous aircraft up into the sky to harness the energy of the wind without the need for noisy turbines and space-hogging power plants.
Ampyx Power’s unique Airborne Wind Energy System (AWES) uses autopilot-controlled glider aircraft to convert wind power into mechanical power. These PowerPlanes are tethered to a generator on the ground and fly in a regular figure of eight pattern at an altitude of 200-450m. When the PowerPlane moves, it pulls the tether, which drives the generator. Once the tether is pulled out to its maximum length, it is then reeled back in, before repeating the pattern. These automatic land and launch cycles are controlled through a platform-based solution; the power consumption of the whole operation is only a fraction of the power produced during the reel-out phase.
With huge potential both on- and offshore, Ampyx’s AWES has significant advantages over traditional wind energy systems. Firstly, the AWES is much more eco-friendly to manufacture, requiring only 10% – that’s the equivalent of less than one blade – of the material used to make a traditional wind turbine.
Secondly, the AWES can go the extra mile: operating at an altitude of 450m, which turbines can’t reach, it can harness stronger and more constant wind for a higher energy yield. Moving about in the cross wind pattern and being able to cover a larger area, unlike the stationary turbine, also achieve this result.
While the visual and noise impact of vast wind power plants often divides opinion as to the merit of this renewable energy source, Ampyx’s AWES takes up only a fraction of the space and operates at a much lower noise level. Setting up the AWES has minimal environmental impact and onsite construction, as well as better safety standards.
Today, Ampyx Power is a vibrant team of 40, based in the Netherlands and Australia, and comprising 15 different nationalities: Chinese, Canadian, Iranian, Iraqi, Mexican, Australian, Italian, Greek, French, Belgian, Dutch, Russian, German, Venezualan and Turkish. This international group of programmers, technicians, hard-core scientists and visionaries believes that their technology could replace coal and gas fired power plants, complementing other renewable energy sources to create an entirely better energy supply system than we have today.
Currently operating two prototypes in a test field in the Netherlands, Ampyx is working with universities and aerospace authorities to bring cheap, reliable and renewable electricity to communities all over the world.
The end goal? To trigger a paradigm shift in our energy sector through the sustainable production of power at lower costs than fossil-fueled alternatives: abundant energy for everyone, everywhere, without CO2 emissions and without subsidies.
That sounds like a pretty good deal to us!
To find out more about Ampyx Power, visit their website.
Image credits: Alan Wu; Ampyx Power
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