Potential of Nanotechnology and Graphene in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the Aerospace Industry

Potential of Nanotechnology and Graphene in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the Aerospace Industry


Nanomaterials have a lot of potential in the aerospace industry. Many nanomaterials that are produced today can be used in composites and bring about many benefits over traditional materials—such as making the composite more lightweight and increasing a composite’s tensile strength, durability and resistance to impact. Composites are used in many areas of the aerospace industry and we’re going to look at the potential of using nanomaterials in one specific area—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

UAVs can take many forms, from large aircraft to much smaller drones—which are aptly named nano air vehicles (NAVs). Focusing in on NAVs, these are airborne vehicles that are no longer than 7.5 cm in length and have been realised in recent years because of advances in nanofabrication methods. However, it is not necessarily the frame of the NAVs where nanomaterials have the most potential to advance NAVs. NAVs contain many different components, so there is a lot of potential for nanomaterials to be used in the various sensors embedded within NAVs—especially if the application is in remote monitoring—but also in the power storage devices—be it nanocapacitors, batteries, or fuels cells—as well as in the propulsion and movement systems that NAVs use to move.

On the area of movement systems, nanotechnology has the greatest potential to impact the different types of resonators and actuators used within NAVS. Additionally, to incorporate all the components needed for NAVs, smaller chips are needed, and the advancements made in bottom-up fabrication methods could provide an answer. One of the key challenges is storing fuel. Even if the components can be made smaller, which in turn can reduce the size of NAVs, there is a limited amount of space to store fuel, and this is where nanoscale solid-state energy storage systems could offer a solution.

Graphene also has a huge amount of potential in UAVs and prototypes that use graphene have already been developed. The focus for graphene has been in larger UAVs because it can significantly lower the weight of the UAV compared to when carbon fibre and other traditional composite materials are used. However, embedding the graphene into the composite has not been the only way to incorporate graphene in larger UAVs. Graphene coatings have also been applied to the wings of UAVs, and whilst it doesn’t offer much in terms of weight savings, they have shown to improve the impact and lightning resistance of the wings by up to 60%. Embedding the graphene into the composite itself has also shown to improve the impact and lightning resistance of the UAV, in addition to reducing the weight—which in turn reduces the amount of power required to power the UAV. On the subject of power usage, it should be noted that graphene has also been used in some of the batteries that power these larger UAVS.

As many will know, there are many different forms of graphene, and many ways in which they can be functionalised into composite matrices. So, whilst great advancements have already been made in the UAV space, there is still a lot of potential for graphene to advance it further—be it in the frame, as a coating, or in the power supply—as more types of graphene are trialled and their incorporation is optimised.

There has also been advances in recent years in the 3D printing of small UAVs from scratch. Whilst this doesn’t currently impact the nanotechnology sector, 3D printing of nanomaterials has also gathered interest over the last few years, and on this application front, it could potentially be the next logical step for fabricating small UAVs from nanomaterial-based composites. But it all depends on how nanofabrication techniques advance compared to additive manufacturing methods.