How to Power “Eternal” UAVs in Flight: A LaserMotive Blueprint

You want some real tech? Here’s some real tech: LaserMotive, the Kent, WA-based startup founded by physicists Jordin Kare and Tom Nugent, has published a white paper on how to beam power to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) so they don’t have to land and refuel, or change batteries. The idea is to recharge UAVs while they’re in the air using a laser power source from the ground. Presumably such “eternal” UAVs that never need to land would be very useful for military and reconnaissance operations.

In San Diego, which is a regional hub of UAV expertise, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that defense contractors like Predator manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman’s unmanned systems business are hustling to develop a new generation of relatively inexpensive UAVs. Most larger UAVs, like the Predator and Fire Scout, a robotic helicopter made by Northrop Grumman, run on gasoline, but smaller ones can run on electricity and are quieter.

That’s where LaserMotive comes into play. This inventive little company, which I first wrote about in-depth last month, has developed power-beaming technology using laser diodes to transmit energy through the air, and specially constructed solar cells to receive the beam and turn it into usable electricity. LaserMotive demonstrated its technology by winning the Level 1 prize of the NASA Power Beaming challenge last fall (part of its Space Elevator Games), in which it powered a robot to climb up a kilometer-long cable using only lasers from the ground. (The company will go for the Level 2 prize later this year.)

But powering UAVs and other practical devices has been the company’s plan for a while, and this is its first big market opportunity. Nugent, LaserMotive’s co-founder and president, said in a statement that his company’s plan is “an important step not only in powering UAVs, but in extending their abilities, improving their endurance and enabling new missions.” He added, “It is especially viable for high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicles and other types of aircraft that need power over a long period of time.”

If you want to know the technical specs and capabilities of LaserMotive’s system (things like range, power levels, and efficiency), read the company’s report. But it seems like an intriguing market. The industry research firm Teal Group says the market for UAVs is expected to grow worldwide from $4.9 billion to $11.5 billion annually in the next 10 years.

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