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Praxis Aeronautics pioneering solar powered flight – by Kerryn Caulfield

Manufacturing News

Decarbonising airplanes and drones is a major challenge as we move towards decarbonising the economy. Here Kerryn Caulfield profiles Praxis Aeronautics, whose novel composite structural systems are making solar-powered flight a possibility.

The Adelaide based startup Praxis Aeronautics specialises in the design and manufacture of solar energy harvesting composite structures, using a process that directly encapsulates solar cells inside composite material and the first structural solar cell encapsulation system on the market.

Solar-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, are traditionally made using prefabricated solar panels fixed or adhered to the wings or body of the structure.

The panels add weight to the aerodynamically sensitive structure and the quantity of solar panels is dictated by the vehicle or wingspan rather than the required power.

The shape and size of the pre-made solar panels also influence the design of the UAV. So while the solar panels power the vehicle’s energy system, they also limit its functionality and design.

Cameron Donaldson, founder and director of innovation and manufacturing of Praxis, reasoned that incorporating solar cells into the vehicle’s structure would solve these limitations by offsetting the weight of the cells, enabling an increase in power without a weight or aerodynamic penalty.

Applying his knowledge of composite materials gained during a 20 year career as a boat builder, Cameron invented the first proprietary structural solar cell encapsulation technology.

In 2016, Cameron tested his idea in the Australian eChallenge, the competitive entrepreneurial program run by the University of Adelaide and won his category.

A grant from the South Australian Government provided the means to test the concept’s technical and manufacturing feasibility and practical potential.

Through further research and experimentation, Praxis made design improvements and weight savings that can increase the flying time of a UAV by up to 200-300 per cent more than non-solar variants.

Based in Adelaide, Praxis Aeronautics is a technology and manufacturing company that specialises in using composites to harvest energy from the sun for air, land and sea applications.

Cameron’s sister, Katie Donaldson, joined the company in 2018 as business partner and managing director.

Cameron and Katie have since built a team of professionals with wide ranging technical and business skills including composite design and manufacturing, aeronautical and structural engineering and electronic and software engineering.

Together they have refined the Praxis process to structurally integrate solar cell chemistry into a shaped composite component that is aerodynamically efficient and waterproof, while also developing custom electronics to complement the power management of the solar arrays.

She said: “While we’re confident that our Praxis Technology heralds a step-change in solar-powered drones, the journey from idea to commercial outcomes has presented lots of challenges.

“In the process of proving and refining our technology, we have collaborated with a number of organisations including Gurit which has a key focus on innovation in sustainability and solar technology.”

Praxis was also contracted by XTEK, the listed ballistic armour and advanced composites manufacturing company that provides acquisition and in-service support to the Department of Defence Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) section.

The XTEK Logistics team provided engineering and technical support on the structural integrity of the SUAS and conducted the flight performance trials that led to the Praxis solar wing system certification.

“With drones fast becoming the autonomous workhorses of the air and sea, our ultimate goal is to create multifunctional autonomous vehicles that can operate in daylight for an unlimited number of hours while the batteries kept at their highest charge state and optimum performance for longer and solar composites, allow us to do this.”

Praxis has a number of transformative commercial and defence contracts under consideration.

Pictures: Praxis Aeronautics/Kerryn Caulfield

Kerryn Caulfield is an advanced manufacturing leader who has headed over 50 international missions focused on developing export markets. She has held senior industry association roles including at the Australian Chamber of Manufactures, and is a former international business manager for Bradmill Textiles. Kerryn is executive manager at Composites Australia, and her company, Apical International is a service provider to industry.

Picture: Kerryn Caulfield

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