Methods were developed for the design of a solar powered UAV capable of tracking the sun to achieve maximum solar energy capture. A single-axis solar tracking system was designed and constructed. This system autonomously rotated an onboard solar panel to find the angle of maximum solar irradiance while the UAV was airborne. A microcontroller was programmed and implemented to control the solar tracking system. A solar panel and an efficient airframe capable of housing the solar tracking system was designed and constructed. Each of these subsystems was tested individually with either ground or flight tests. Ultimately, the final assembled system was tested. These tests were used to determine where and when a UAV with an onboard solar tracker would be advantageous over a conventional solar powered UAV with PV cells statically fixed to its wings. The final UAV had a wingspan of 3.2 meters, a length of 2.6 meters, and weighed 4.1 kilograms. Its solar panel provided a maximum power output of 37.7 watts. The predicted system performance, airframe drag, and system power requirements were validated with a battery powered flight test. The UAV's analytical model predicted the drag to be 41% lower than the actual drag found from flight testing. Full system functionality was verified with a solar powered flight test. The results and analysis of the system tests are presented in this thesis. The net energy increase from the solar tracking UAV over a conventional solar powered UAV for the duration of a day is dependent on season and geographical location. The solar tracking UAV that was developed was found to have a maximum net energy gain of 34.5% over a conventional solar powered version of the UAV. The minimum net energy gain of the solar tracking UAV was found to be 0.8%.



College and Department

Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology; Mechanical Engineering



Date Submitted


Document Type





solar power, solar cells, solar tracker, solar panel design, photovoltaic cells, PV cells, unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV, efficient airframe, airframe design, steady level flight, solar powered flight