Wireless Charging For Border Patrol Drones

It makes sense to use drones to patrol borders or perimeters. But there’s a problem. Drones have to carry batteries or fuel and mostly have a short operating time. A new paper from the University of Houston proposes a solution by recharging drones in flight using a novel wireless charging mechanism. What’s the cost? Another paper explores the economics of the approach.

The system relies on electric lines running along a border wall feeding wireless power transfer devices that allow the drone to recharge in flight. This is akin, we think, to an electric train that takes power from the third rail except, in this case, the power rail is wireless. Also, the drone would still have batteries to enable it to go off the rail as needed.

The paper mentions that the source power could be from wind or solar, but that’s not necessarily important and it also requires a storage battery in the system that you could omit if using conventional power. In addition, you’d think batteries and solar panels might be targets for theft in remote areas.

The paper mentions that another alternative is to simply have charging towers along the wall where drones land to recharge. This is easier, we think, but it does put the drone out of full operation status while charging. On the other hand, cheap drones could work in shifts to cover an area, so it seems like that might be a better solution than charging while flying.

What do you think? How would you make a long-duration drone? Fuel cells? In-flight battery swapping from a refueling drone? Laser power? Maybe a magnetic battery swap system where the drone swoops over a charger to drop off and pick up a fresh battery? Let us know what you would try or — even better — what you have done.

We’ve seen a drone pit stop robot already. Refueling drones have been done, too. But it does seem like something better is possible.

43 thoughts on “Wireless Charging For Border Patrol Drones

  1. Regarding landing pad charging, you could look into an old defunct contact charging standard called OpenDots. Unfortunately the original website is down, however it’s captured in the web archive.

    Being contact based rather than wireless, it would have less power loss. However it won’t be as convenient as the E-line concept shown in this hackaday page.

    How it works is that the device has 4 conductive dots spaced in a specific angle across a landing pad strip of alternating conductive strip, such that at least one conductive dot will contact at least a positive and negative strip.

    * Specification Sheet (The Standard): https://web.archive.org/web/20170330145748/http://opendotsalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/OpenDotsSpecifications1dot2.pdf

    * Application Notes (E.g. Circuits Schematics): https://web.archive.org/web/20181011162718/http://opendotsalliance.org/technical-information/application-notes/

    * Overview of the standard (E.g. System Diagram): https://web.archive.org/web/20181026000500/http://opendotsalliance.org/technical-information/open-dots-101/

  2. Whatever system is used, robustness, particularly against vandalism, is going to be an important factor. Running wires along the border wall is great until one of the wires is cut and you lose surveillance coverage of a large section of your border. Recharging towers seems like the better of the 2 options for this reason – easier to fortify and defend.

      1. That makes one manned tower replacing hundreds of agents. Regardless how expensive the solution is, it might be cheaper than paying a lot of humans. I hope ends-up in more staff for helping inside the territory rather than fewer employment.

  3. I really can’t see how wireless power transfer to a moving flying platform can ever really make sense, and this method seems like the best way to waste electric ever – if you really MUST have wireless charging you want either the distances to be tiny – which rather rules out actively flying around the charge line as its just not going to be possible to fly that close without collisions in a real world full of sudden wind gusts or the energy transfer mechanism to be hugely directional – like a laser so it can be actively aimed to the target drone…

    Landing on a charge tower works – if the drone can then slide guided by some good chamfer into a well fitting cradle to get great alignment of its coil you can actually get something resembling efficiency and not have to worry about corrosion or physical damage to the connectors which makes sense for a remote platform…

    And if you really must charge your drone in the air it seems to me a larger mothership refueling aircraft is needed – simply land drone on the catch plate for a battery swap – much more efficent charging, no need to stay tethered to the charge wire so much more effective range – its just making sure the fuel tanker can meet its targets before they are flat… But if you are really going to need that it seems like it would be cheaper and more efficient to just fly much larger fixed wing glider profile for great flight efficiency surveillance aircraft with a deploy-able really tiny short range multirotor if you really must have the helicopter style flight profile for any part of its job…

    1. If the drone’s sole purpose is to patrol at the proximity of the border, then using a drone at all is a waste. I’d rather have multiple camera’s output stitched by software to form a panoramic view of the border that you can scroll in real time.

  4. To be fair, just having the occasional pole with a camera or two on it might be more economical compared to drones.

    Poles aren’t particularly expensive, neither is a decent camera. There is pan tilt and zoom capable out door cameras for not that much these days. All though, a drone does have the advantage of going “anywhere” and therefor being able to get other perspectives.

    1. Unfortunately, being stationary, cameras on poles are great targets for those wishing to blind the border patrol. They’d require constant upkeep, but then again…so would a fleet of drones.

      To be honest, a hybrid approach of drones, pole-mounted cameras, and physical enforcement officers is a probably the best bet.

  5. If I were looking to disrupt the function of this system (monitoring) then all it would require is a pair of wire cutters to cut the e-line in the area I wanted to cross through. This alone makes a dedicated wiring system untenable. However, if the drones used a hook to hang and siphon off power from normal nearby power lines then it would be a plausible system.

    Flying while charging makes little sense because your drone is still out of position which makes it an easy target.

  6. Is it necessary to charge the drones in flight? I realize that drones are limited in the fuel source they are able carry. I further realize that the distance it has to travel for refueling, is not very efficient and limiting the range of these devices. If I’m able to charge my mobile phone on a wireless pad. Tesla charging stations for cars are popping up all over the place. What is to keep the border patrol from installing wireless charging pads periodically along the main routes? These could be battery storage and fed by solar panel. The amount of rainfall received along the border wall is minimal, so the number of days to charge should be a high percentage. Thoughts?

  7. The physics might be neat, but it’s a classic case of universities knowing nothing about the real world. The entire point of using drones to fly perimeter surveillance is so that you don’t have to run cables along the whole perimeter. If you were willing to run cables you can either set up cameras, vibration detectors, motion sensors etc, that are more effective.

  8. Personally, I think it’s great that we’re providing free power to people crossing the border. I guess charging their phones isn’t their primary concern when they’re about to cross a desert with limited water supplies, but it’s better than nothing.

  9. Back sometime when the 70’s became the 80’s, NASA was funding research and publishing the NASA Tech Brief Publication. Thy published some papers about trying to get Orbiting Solar Arrays to ‘Beam’ the Power down to the earth.. Same thing we are talking about here.. Tesla’s great dream.. wireless transmission of energy..

    The Closest thing I read about for the Orbiting Solar Array, was a Focused Steerable ‘Microwave Beam’, that was then converted back into Electricity. Rather complicated and low conversion rates.

    If we ever get wireless energy really figured out, then the next thing we need to work on is the Cold Fusion Problem.. Then we can all drive around our electric cars forever, without charging them..


  10. Ammonia is producible by wind or solar sources, is much (energy)denser than batteries or hydrogen, can be used in simple internal combustion engines, and does not involve carbon. Liquid re-fueling is obviously much faster than battery charging, too.

  11. Using such a small scale system is just plain silly.
    Somewhat larger drones have non-stop flight times of over 24 hours and they can fly themselves to some convenient area to refuel.

    1. Agreed. Not a bat’s chance in hell that this will fly. If you are beaming say 1kW (that’s what a small drone needs) at a drone, then you can easly tap tens of kW of power with a fixed installation along the border.

      A sensible thing would be to have a charging station every 1km or so. Have 2x more drones than you actually need and have half of them charging on the charging stations. Much cheaper.

  12. 100% agree… “How do we charge drones flying along border fences?” is a bad question about bad technology used to enforce bad policy…. The segments of fence/wall along the border need to be torn down and recycled, not topped with wires or charging pads :eye roll:

    Too often we get caught up in the tech itself and fail to see the ethics behind it. Why would you want a drone to fly patrols along a given path in the first place? Are those reasons *good*?

  13. Interesting, not from a border surveillance POV, but for monitoring pipelines. This would alleviate many concerns about national/transnational oil pipelines. I wonder how often pipelines follow the same corridor as high-tension power lines? Hmmm..

    1. There are stationary sensors for pipeline monitoring which can augment existing aerial techniques. Solar powered sensors using LoRA or cellular are cheap, durable, and have 24×7 coverage. If you want to string cables for good measure, there’s already right-of-way along the pipeline and access roads, so it’s less of a problem.

  14. Border Patrol use Anduril Ghost drones on the US borders, Anduril is owned by the same guy that made Oculus, Palmer Luckey. He developed a complete border CUAS system and border AI system called Lattice AI which has many capabilities for monitoring borders and reacting to infil. It is also capable acting as a targeting system of sensors and drones that pinpoint, target, and destroy (or react accordingly let’s say).

  15. Almost don’t know where to start.
    But I’ll start with the over the air charging.
    In a world where you are required to provide personnel protection from excessive radiated power and laws of physics with inverse square law of attenuation, it is impossible to charge high power consumption devices from any significant distances.
    The second one is the 2000 mile border and a wall that costs $4000 per foot to build. Anybody that thinks it’s a good idea is either an idiot or has never driven the southern Texas border.
    The sole purpose of the border wall is to permit sleazy politicians to rile up support and fundraising by creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the criminals and rapists attacking the US on its unsecured border.
    Three points here:
    1. Nearly twice as many “illegal immigrants” enter through ports of entry and overstay their visas as immigrate across the border.
    2. It is *totally legal* for an immigrant to enter through a border to seek refugee status. Something a lot of dishonest politicians seem to forget when they’re fundraising and campaigning. It’s up to Congress to change it if they want to (which they don’t)
    3. There are hundreds of thousands of people who commute from Mexico to the US and vice versa every single day for work, schools etc. in the border towns.
    The reality is that there is a huge industry of playing cat and mouse with immigrants because it is big business and brings in big money and they are easy marks. What if we’d taken half of the money from the wall and spent it in border towns on police department and fire department infrastructure, school construction, road repair, community swimming pools, industrial parks, community colleges, trades education, etc.?
    Surprised that a student in Texas with a Korean surname would have anything at all to do with it.

  16. Why do we privilege unhindered capital flows across borders, but restrict flows of people?

    Probably cheaper to give people a free phone. It will track them, and they’ll take care of the charging…

  17. Wouldn’t a more pragmatic approach be a system that ‘hot swaps’ the batteries out? I.e. drone is designed for fast battery switching, it lands for 5 seconds during which time an automated system quickly changes to a fresh battery.

    – you minimize the ‘down time’ of the drone
    – you SIGNIFICANTLY reduce wasted power
    – probably easier to implement

  18. I kept a drone flying for 25 hours using a laser, powered a RC truck to a distance of 1 mile and powered a robotic climber to a height of 600 meters. Most of the comments about it all being too expensive and impractical are correct. But laser power beaming does work. What is missing is the upsides. Power beaming allows for much smaller aircraft to do the same job. This saves much of the power that is lost in the transmission system. I still have not found a good enough application to quit my day job for, but several have come close.

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