Bristol Uni expert leads race to harness electricity from drones

a prototype Kitemill drone in action, inset Dr Duc Nguyen
-Credit: (Image: Kitemill/ Dr Duc Nguyen)

It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie set far into the future, but a scientist at Bristol University is researching the incredible-sounding idea of harvesting the power of the wind by sending tethered drones high into the sky.

It works but if it proves efficient enough, it could be a game-changer for renewable energy, and see onshore wind turbines supplemented by the emerging field of ‘Airborne Wind Energy Systems’.

The idea is that, like a kite, the drone is pulled higher into the air, the higher it goes, by the wind. It’s tethered to the ground, and as the drone is pulled higher, the cable tethering it is pulled through, driving a generator and producing electricity. A slight change in the aerodynamics of the drone can bring it lower, before going higher again and repeating the process.

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One of the leading experts on this technology in this country is the University of Bristol ’s lecturer in Flight Dynamics and Control, Dr Duc H Nguyen. He’s just landed a £375,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to conduct further research into the idea.

“Airborne wind energy has enormous potential and is anticipated to generate €70 billion per year worth of electricity by 2050,” he said. “However, it is still an emerging technology. In many cases, a trade-off has been made: new designs have been rapidly deployed for test flights before their flying characteristics are fully understood.

“This has prevented many AWES prototypes from achieving full capacity in operation, leading to early termination of the programme and hindering commercialisation. This project seeks to address this challenge through the use of bifurcation and continuation methods,” he added.

a prototype Kitemill drone in action
a prototype Kitemill drone in action -Credit:Kitemill

“By replacing existing techniques with bifurcation methods, AWES can achieve significant cost savings and improved performance that will ultimately bring this technology closer to commercialisation,” he added.

The University of Bristol research will be done in collaboration with researchers in Madrid and the Norwegian firm Kitemill, which are trying to develop a way to make the technology work and the idea commercial.

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“The initiation and successful funding of this AWES project is an important development in the renewable energy sector,” said Kitemill’s co-founder Thomas Hårklau. “AWES technology, with its exceptional material efficiency and higher energy yields, has the potential to become a dominant force in the energy industry.

"We are excited to collaborate with Duc Nguyen and Bristol University on this initiative. This project not only advances the UK's net-zero mission but also secures British competence in this emerging sector. Together, we aim to address current challenges and pave the way for the commercialisation of AWES,” he added.