Can Drones Fly To Space?

Can Drones Fly To Space?

Everyone who has operated a drone has itched to test its flying limitations. How far can it venture? Till the clouds, the upper atmosphere, outer space? 

Long answer short, drones as we own them are inherently ill-equipped for interstellar journeys. But does that negate the possibility of sending drones to space? Absolutely not. 

With a few strategic enhancements to overcome the cosmic barriers, drones could have a future in space, too.

Most civilian and commercial drones can fly up to the stratosphere, i.e., 40000 ft above ground level. Military drones can further this feat by another 10000 ft., but to go beyond that, drones need supplementary equipment and modifications to navigate the harsh conditions of space.

Join me as I dissect the factors that prohibit drones from flying into space, along with innovative alterations that could enable them to undertake this journey.

Factors Inhibiting Drone Flights To Space

Factors Inhibiting Drone Flights To Space

As a drone enthusiast, I always knew these tiny crafts couldn’t fly into space due to lack of air, but there’s more to it. The vacuum in space is not the sole reason obstructing their flight. Here are the details I discovered:

1. Technological Factors

Technical space drone challenges concern the equipment that a drone comes fitted with. These inherent factors are the key impediments to regular drones flying into space.

2. Battery Limitations

Commercial drones are fitted with standard LiPo (Lithium Polymer) batteries that cannot withstand extreme temperatures. Since the temperatures in space are tremendously low, they cease to function.

3. Signal Transmission

The signal transmission of your drone’s controller has a limited range. A standard drone fitted with LTE-enabled transmitters and big antennas has a range of up to 5 miles.

In order to function at large distances from the operator, the drone needs to rely on sophisticated communication systems, possibly using satellites

4. Other Factors

Aside from a drone’s equipment, there are some external and environmental factors that affect a drone’s flight into space.

5. Atmospheric Pressure

The force exerted by air upon an object as gravity attracts it to Earth is called atmospheric pressure. At higher altitudes, the air gets thinner, resulting in lower pressure. 

Drones fly with the help of propellers that push the air down using air density. In lower air densities, such as those on Mars, the propellers need to work harder to force the required air downwards and sustain flight.

And in a vacuum, where air is absent, a traditional propeller drone simply cannot fly.

6. Gravity

Gravity and air pressure share a proportional relationship. As altitude increases, gravity weakens, and air pressure reduces.

While one would assume that lower gravity would mean less power consumption by a drone, it must be noted that space has no air! Thus, a highly advanced propulsion system is required to compensate for the lower gravity.

Modifications Required To Make Drones Fly To Space

Modifications Required To Make Drones Fly To Space

The reason we know so much about why commercial drones made by DJI, Yuneec, or other brands cannot fly into space is because one drone has made this flight.

Ingenuity, or Ginny for short, is the drone sent into space by NASA, and it looks nowhere close to the drones we know. Termed a small autonomous helicopter by NASA, Ginny could also be called a drone based on some similar characteristics.

I decided to dig into the tweaks NASA made to Ginny for its mission to Mars to understand how drones can overcome the above-mentioned limitations.

Keep in mind, though, that these modifications will work only on planets that have some atmosphere and not in space, which is devoid of any air.

Here’s what I uncovered:

1. Propulsion Technology

Although Ginny can only sustain a flight for 40 seconds, it does matter in a place like space. NASA worked on a special propulsion system that can hold the craft in a vacuum.

So, unless you can replicate this advanced tech, good luck sending your drone to space!

2. Battery Heaters

To counter the freezing temperatures in space, NASA fitted Ginny with heaters placed in the battery compartment. These nifty heaters ensured that the batteries were at optimal temperatures.

Ginny also has solar panels that can charge the battery once the juice runs out.

3. Rotor System

Ginny is equipped with complex rotor systems, as found in helicopters. The simple fixed rotor blades of the drones we are used to operating will be useless in space.

The carbon-fiber blades of Ginny are large and rotate in opposite directions at speeds exceeding 2400 rpm to counter the dense air on Mars.

Benefits Of Sending Drones To Space

Benefits Of Sending Drones To Space

So, drones can venture into space with some engineering feats. But is it worth it? Why are agencies like NASA keen on overcoming space drone challenges? This is what makes drones the preferred approach for space exploration:

  • Data Collection: One could argue that before drones came along, there were other means to collect data from planets. Rovers like Curiosity, Opportunity, etc., come to mind. But drones offer distinct advantages in two critical aspects:
  • Range: The aerial range covered by drones vastly exceeds that of land-bound rovers. Despite a short flight time, drones are able to offer a more expansive and panoramic view of the terrain.
  • Accessibility: The towering heights and deep abysses of planets are sources of valuable data but are inaccessible due to the treacherous topography. Owing to their ability to fly, drones can easily navigate these daunting terrains, unveiling invaluable insights.
  • Personnel Safety: With drones taking over the arduous task of going to space and bringing celestial data, humans can take a breather! Difficult space missions will become easier to perform without putting human life at risk.
  • Transportation, Monitoring, and Retrieval: Drones are adept at delivering or retrieving payloads, like cameras and sensors, that are stationed in space for experiments. They also excel in the role of vigilant space mission monitors conducting reconnaissance missions with greater accuracy and minimal risk.
  • Cost Effectiveness: Every aspect of space travel is prohibitively expensive. From blueprints to blast-offs, each step entails huge expenditures. While drones carry a hefty price tag, too, once the technology is mastered, it will be a fraction of the cost involved in crewed missions. But it is still out of reach for you and me!

Drones in Space

Having imbibed the limitless potential of space drone applications and tasted success with Ingenuity, space agencies are raring for more. I found some exciting developments that are coming up to make space drones more mainstream.

JEM Int-Ball Drone

Delivered to the ISS by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), this autonomous flight drone is shaped like a tiny ball. This space drone is capable of floating in a zero-gravity environment and is currently being used to document life aboard the ISS.

Dragonfly

Set to launch in 2027, the Dragonfly is headed to Saturn’s icy moon- Titan. The most ambitious among NASA’s drone projects, it will be a rotorcraft-lander probe fitted with scientific instruments to explore the moon.

Conclusion

As we enjoy recreational drone flights, these tiny crafts are pursuing higher purposes! Having proved their mettle on Earth, with applications spanning delivery services, military operations, exploration, disaster management, retail applications, etc., eyes are now on new frontiers like outer space.

Returning to our original question, now we know why our drones cannot make it to space! For now, let’s appreciate the surreal aerial imagery they offer without the need for space travel.

FAQ

1. Can drones fly in a vacuum?

The blades of a propeller lift a drone by pushing air in a downward direction. Since there is no air in space, the standard propeller mechanism becomes dysfunctional.

2. Can weather balloons be used to fly drones to space?

You can fly drones to significant heights using a weather balloon and some modifications. After a point, however, the balloon will explode due to the absence of air, and the drone will fall back to Earth.

3. How does the JEM Int-Ball drone float in space?

The Int-Ball has been fitted with actuators, rotational and acceleration sensors, and electromagnetic brakes to help it transcend the barriers posed by the vacuum in space. 

Author
Diptesh Das

Diptesh Das is your friendly ‘content maniac’ and drone enthusiastic! Being passionate about content writing. He is a firm believer of the power of words and thereby ended up leveraging them to create an impact by sharing his drone knowledge and experiences.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *