Check Out These Drones Battling It Out With Lightning Strikes

The High Voltage Laboratory's lightning versus a handful of drones. Will they survive? Enna Bartlett/University of Manchester

Volcano versus penguin. Crocodile versus elephant. Horse versus alligator. The natural world is full of battles like this, but now it looks like humanity has entered the fray, pitting several of its metallic and plastic drones against the terrifying forces of lightning. Place your bets now, ladies and gentlemen.

In the one corner, we have YouTuber Tom Scott and his two DJI Phantom 3 drones. These rather versatile levitators have survived plenty of extremely hostile environments before, including active volcanoes – but this time, they may have finally met their match.

In the other corner, we have the University of Manchester’s High Voltage Laboratory (HVL), with their supervillain-like impulse generator. This somewhat magical device can generate up to 2 million volts of electricity at the drop of a hat, but for the purposes of this battle, they kindly switched it down to a measly 1 million volts.

In round one, the drone was tethered in place to ensure it couldn’t sneak out of the way of the lightning strikes. Charging up their impulse generator, there was a nervous wait before the bolt struck the drone – and, as you might expect, it fell out of the sky.

Ouch. FSE Digital Marketing via YouTube

There weren’t parts of it scattered all over the place, nor was there any sort of fire, but Scott was able to smell the fried circuits as soon as he went over to retrieve our fallen tribute.

The battery, when removed, appeared to be perfectly intact. It’s insulated, weirdly, because of a metal box encasing it, which makes it a type of Faraday cage. The motors, however, were completely fried.

Drones versus Lightning. Tom Scott via YouTube

Humanity wasn’t finished yet though. Deciding to send in his back up drone, Scott this time gave his drone a make-shift lightning rod, which he hoped would send the bolt of doom screeching around the drone and not through it.

The lightning doesn’t appear to have gone for the decoy, so to speak. Instead, during round two, it exploded through one of the propellers, sending it flying through the air. Ah well. Such is the power of nature.

Apart from being great fun to watch, these sorts of experiments do have an actual purpose.

“One of the most pertinent questions we have had to answer in recent years is what happens to aeroplanes if they’re struck by lightning,” Enna Bartlett, a digital coordinator for the University of Manchester, noted in an accompanying blog.

“With our understanding of how aeroplanes behave in thunderstorms and how to provide protection for them, this knowledge could be applied to drone technology to ensure the drone and its pilot stays safe should they fly in adverse weather conditions.”

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