Power Over Fiber: Implications for the Drone Industry – Interview with PowerLight CEO Richard Gustafson

We recently shared some news about PowerLight Technologies, formerly known as LaserMotive, as the first company to bring high-power, long distance optical power beaming over fiber to commercial markets. Curious about the technology and its implications for the drone industry, we had a chance to learn more from PowerLight CEO Richard Gustafson. Read on to find out how it works!

1. Can you describe briefly, for a general audience, how the technology of power over fiber works?

Power over Fiber (PoF) converts available electricity into a beam of light and sends that light through a lightweight, non-conductive optical fiber to a remote device where the light is converted back into electricity.  Although PowerLight’s design leverages the latest advances in laser and photovoltaic engineering, the design philosophy is based on utilizing components that are readily available commercially.  The innovation system does this while integrating necessary safety systems enabling its use by standard operators in standard operating conditions.

2. What are the implications of this technology specifically for the drone industry? How do you see this being implemented? 

Point of Fiber can safely enable higher altitude tethered drones as well as farther reaching and more nimble underwater drones which currently have an optical tether for data but which are limited by batteries for power.  Aerial tethered drones can remain “on station” indefinitely without risking take-off and landing associated with refueling / recharging and underwater drones can perform hull inspections and other missions for much longer durations without returning to base.

Drones today are primarily battery-based. For certain applications, the limited run-time dictated by the use of batteries is acceptable.  For some applications, persistence of on-station use of the drone is a critical requirement.  Here, the use of Free-Space (wireless) Power can be the only way of allowing the drone to remain airborne indefinitely.  These systems can track and charge a drone while it is in use. In some cases the drone may hover nearby while charging and then move to its “duty station”. This enables the drone to avoid the time consuming and often risky landings. In some cases, the drone application requires persistent use but also demands a tighter measure of control often provided by a tether. Unfortunately, using copper-wire based tether systems limited distance due to weight of the cable. Using lightweight Power Over Fiber technology from PowerLight enables a tethered drone to climb to maximum height or distance without limitation.

3. What future developments in your technology and product are you hoping to see in the next few years?

In the next few years, we expect to release a wireless, “free space” power system (FSP), which will completely cut the cord to deliver hundreds or thousands of watts over distances of hundreds or thousands of meters.

4. You recently rebranded to PowerLight from the previous name of LaserMotive. Can you describe that process, and the reasons that led to that?

The switch from LaserMotive to PowerLight Technologies signifies our change from the tech development phase to the commercialization phase.  And it enables us to have discussions with customers about the products and our advanced laser safety technologies without the common “first impression” people may have when they hear the word “laser.”

5. Anything else you would like to share? 

Even in the enclosed system of a power over fiber solution, safety remains a critical design element for any power system.  PowerLight’s complete integration of safety as a defining design element is another reason the company is are far ahead of any other long-distance non-copper based power transfer technology or medium, let alone wireless. For beneficial use in the field, the product must be easily and safely integrated into a user’s operations and PowerLight has built a balanced solution with this end in mind.

We also want to point out this technology started with actual field trials through to a working demonstration for validation. It is far ahead of most other wireless power technologies, many of which have never left the building.