The Next Niche Market for Solar? Drones—Yes, Drones

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Very high efficiency, rugged solar panels could find their first markets outside the green demographics.

The idea that solar is a nice, soft technology that only liberals could love reaches back into the 1970s. It was there that the counterculture adopted solar energy as an alternative to the fossil fuels that dominated (and still dominate) the American energy mix. Solar became a symbol that Reaganites were happy to pillory in the 1980s, and that political divide continued into this century.


But in the most recent green tech wave, solar politics have become a lot more complicated. While solar's biggest proponents traditionally hailed from blue California, red Arizona has been installing photovolatics at a tremendous pace, especially for its population size.

But it's not just geography that's changing the solar political picture. Solar power is increasingly useful to the Department of Defense. And that's a niche market that Alta Devices, which makes an ultra-efficient, ruggedized solar cell is hoping to make money. 

When we visited Alta Devices for the video you see above, they'd recently incorporated their solar technology into a drone wing. While they're currently working on short-flight duration drones, their technology could potentially extend the flying time of military unmanned aerial vehicles like Predators from a couple of days to much longer. While Alta is still in the early days of developing solar that can be incorporated right into these flying machines, it's fascinating to think of a solar company that has to sell to military contractors, not eco-conscious homeowners. 

Here you see Joe Foster, VP of Business Development and a lifelong Silicon Valley resident, discuss how the company's technology and business work.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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