PROJECT POWER: Raytheon Secures $10M DARPA Contract for Wireless Airborne Energy Webs
The Project Persistent Optical Wireless Energy Relay (POWER), "aims to establish more dynamic energy transport across air, space, maritime, land, and undersea domains.”
A two-year, $10 million DARPA contract was recently received by U.S. defense contractor RTX Raytheon“to design and develop a wireless airborne relay system to deliver energy into contested environments.”
The new program, known as the Persistent Optical Wireless Energy Relay (POWER) seeks to harness power beaming to achieve rapid energy transfer within a robust form of “webs”. RTX Raytheon’s website explains“The POWER program is part of DARPA’s Energy Web Dominance portfolio, which aims to establish more dynamic energy transport across air, space, maritime, land, and undersea domains.”
Their ultimate goal, according to Military+ Aerospace Electronics, is “to use three airborne relay nodes hosted on existing aircraft to transmit energy from a ground source laser to 60,000 feet in altitude, and back down to a ground receiver 125 miles away.” The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, aka DARPA, explains on its website that relays will solve the issue of conversion losses when switching from propagating waves to electricity in a “multiple-hop” network while enabling high-altitude transmission rather than beaming through the lower atmosphere.
There are three phases to POWER.
PHASE ONE: Developing the enabling technology
PHASE TWO: This technology is then carried by pods on aircraft
PHASE THREE: A remote ground-based laser system is used, capable of transmitting 10 kilowatts of optical power through the air to a ground receiver situated 200 kilometers away
The initial stage is anticipated to span 20 months, with the possibility of a three-month extension if required. Following this, the second phase, scheduled for early 2025, will encompass an open tendering process centered on the integration of relay technologies into an aircraft.
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Nikola Tesla, Wardenclyffe, & Wireless Energy in Aeronautics
The concept of wireless energy is not a new one. NASA has been working with ground-based lasers in the transmission of power to support space exploration for several decades. The idea goes back much further, however, with Nikola Tesla’s 187-foot-tall Wardenclyffe wireless station. The “Tesla Tower”, was built in Long Island from 1901-1902 under the guise of creating a “World Wireless System” using electrical conductors. The structure embodied a mass-scale rendition of the Tesla coil.
Financially backed by JP Morgan, ($150,000 -today that would be around $5.4 million), the Wardenclyffe Tower sought to connect two telephones no matter their location in the world using electronic power harnessed from lightning. At the time, Tesla’s only competition was Guglielmo Marconi’s radio-based telegraphy system. Marconi, dubbed “wizard of the ether” used radio waves to send text messages quickly across the world using a cable system. On the other hand, Tesla sought to build a worldwide system of 30 steel wireless towers weighing 55 tons each. Further into the project, Tesla realized he would need more than 30 towers, and when JP Morgan refused to provide Nikola with any more cash, the project ran out of steam. After being sold in 1917 to the Smiley Steel Company of New York, it was demolished and sold for scraps for $1,750.
After the failure of the Wardenclyffe Tower project, Tesla focused on how the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular, lightning, could be employed as an unlimited free energy source. He wanted to create aerial machines that could run mechanically or by wireless energy, eliminating the need for propellers, and other external attachments that at the time were necessary.
"The flying machine of the future—my flying machine—will be heavier than air, but it will not be an aeroplane. It will have no wings. It will be substantial, solid, stable. You cannot have a stable airplane. The gyroscope can never be successfully applied to the airplane, for it would give a stability that would result in the machine being torn to pieces by the wind, just as the unprotected aeroplane on the ground is torn to pieces by a high wind.
"You might see it on the ground and you would never guess that it was a flying machine. Yet it will be able to move at will through the air in any direction with perfect safety, higher speeds than have yet been reached, regardless of weather and oblivious of —holes in the air— or downward currents. It will ascend in such currents if desired. It can remain absolutely stationary in the air, even in a wind, for great length of time. Its lifting power will not depend upon any such delicate devices as the bird has to employ, but upon positive mechanical action." - New York Herald, “Tesla’s New Monarch of Machines,” - Oct 15, 1911
While most of these ideas were never proven to be successful, they did bring novel concepts of harnessing energy into the world of physics that would be piggybacked for decades to come. Nikola Tesla did make an eerie prediction before his passing in 1943:
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.” - Nikola Tesla, 1926
Lasers Provide Minimal Energy Loss During Transfer
Energy is lost when attempting to move objects through rough surfaces by way of friction. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates with electricity, 5% energy loss occurs during transmission. The goal of using lasers instead is to reduce the amount of energy lost in transfer and increase efficiency. Scaling across a multi-path network with shorter conversion losses requires automatic relays, which is where POWER comes in.
POWER relays redirect energy from the laser with no need for initial conversion. This is then converted by the receiver into electricity using narrow bandgap tuned monochromatic photovoltaic light conversion. This method uses the same basic concept as wireless communication technologies.
The Future of Project POWER
“As we look…decades in the future, this could fundamentally change things as we know it across society. So much of our society is tied to our ability to effectively use energy. And what we're trying to do is add a new tool to spread energy to more people more flexibly in order to create a better society, as well as open up a lot of opportunities for the tough challenges that our military has to face.” -Col. Paul Calhoun, DARPA program manager
Before joining DARPA in 2020, program manager in the Tactical Technology Office (TTO), Col. Calhoun served as an Air Force Fellow in both 2012 and 2015. According to DARPA Forward, Calhoun “holds a master’s degree in flight test engineering from USAF Test Pilot School and a master’s degree in national resource strategy.”
In February, Col. Calhoun presented the idea of autonomous capabilities during a DARPA Forward conference and noted success in point-to-point power beaming as transfer methods in both laser and microwave power beaming. He adds that DARPA has been exploring power beaming through acoustics as well. Calhoun explains effective beaming relays using optical power must do three things to minimize energy losses: “It must efficiently redirect energy without conversions, it must correct wavefront aberrations to maintain a tight beam for long range, and it must selectively harvest some of the energy to power itself.”
Col. Calhoun also mentions in a recent “Voices from DARPA” Podcast that his experience in the military with air-dropping fuel is dangerous and inefficient. The military’s use of drones and satellites to transfer uninterrupted power will leave little room for the exploitation of vulnerabilities from enemies on liquid fuel storage and power lines.
While the POWER project technology will be used to enhance military capabilities, DARPA sees it also being proposed for civilian life, cutting down on the usage of cords and power banks. "Energy underpins every human activity, including defense,” says the leader of the POWER program, Dr. Paul Jaffe. “We need ways to deliver energy that overcome the vulnerabilities and other shortcomings of our current paradigm. The next leap forward in optical power beaming could hinge on relay technologies."
RTX Raytheon’s contract will be deployed in El Segundo and Mojave, California, Kent, Washington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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