Solar Drones Solar UAVs

Claws Versus Talons

Like any threatening sports team (Mighty Ducks notwithstanding), it seems as though military equipment needs to be named after vicious animals. Aerovironment, a technology solutions provider headquartered in Monrovia, California and responsible for intimidating call signs such as Raven, Wasp, and Shrike, has bucked the trend slightly by giving their latest Unmanned Aerial Vehicle the name of a big cat rather than the name of a big bird of prey or penetrating insect.


The Puma AE (Puma is an acronym for Pointer Upgraded Mission Ability, AE stands for All Environment) has been serving branches of the US Armed Forces since 2008. It’s a battle-proven Unmanned Aerial System dedicated to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, with military and civilian application. Aerovironment has deliveredthousands of new and replacement UAS to branches of the armed forces, customers within the United States, and to more than twenty international governments. Designed for land and sea operations, the battery powered Puma AE launches from and lands on either surface and has risen highest with America’s Special Operation Command, where the flying cat has proved effective in scouting ambushes, detecting roadside bombs and warning of weather conditions not conducive to home team victory. But with a battery run of only 3.5 hours, there remains much room for improvement in the flight department.

Enter the solar Puma AE (Fig.2). Powered by the yellow orb behind such popular processes as
photosynthesis and singeing insects, this version of the technology can fly nine hours eleven minutes. That’s not as far as Colorado’s Silent Falcon UAS Technologies “Silent Falcon” UAV, which is able to sustain fourteen hours of flight time on solar power, but a falcon should be able to fly farther than a cat. That is the way of things. The solar Puma runs on a hybrid system of battery and solar power, with the solar component provided by Alta Devices in Sunnyvale, California. Alta manufactures the thinnest and most efficient solar cells in the world (FIg.3) and their thin, mobile power collector is applied to a flexible substrate, which in UAVs is usually the top of the wing. Their proprietary solar technology greatly extends the battery life of any application, the additional weight is negligible, and Alta has world records for their single and dual junction solar cell. Competitor Silent Falcon can be fitted with three sizes of wing and comes with a weaponized variant called the “Snipe.” The solar Puma keeps it simple with a single nine foot wingspan and no weapons, but when it shows its claws, some nice features get flashed. The Puma’s equipped with gimbaled payload, high resolution electro-optical infrared camera and a nanometer laser illuminator. With a thirteen pound re-enforced fuselage, the casing is a lightweight composite and the two-blade propeller is Kevlar and epoxy. It looks like a radio controlled cargo plane and flies at a top speed of 52 mph. (83 km/h when flying over Canada and any other country partially committed to the metric system).


With mechanical beasts taking flight all over the world, the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t yet decided how to regulate drone usage, but Aerovironmentrecently received a ‘Restricted Category’ rating for the Puma cousins. It’s a first-of-its-kind certificate, permitting operators to fly the Puma for commercial missions. So far, though, those unrestricted flights can only take place in the Arctic, so they might need to rethink the Puma’s name. “Snow Drone” might still be available.

Check out this quick video talking a little more about the Puma AE Solar: