Laser power beaming will lead to UAVs that don’t need to refuel, supply energy to remote locations, and provide better, cheaper access to space.
LaserMotive recently kept a small remotely controlled drone helicopter continuously in the air for more than 12 hours on beamed laser power. This concept may be useful in the future to power full-scale UAVs during extended missions. (Image concept courtesy of LaserMotive.)
While the vast majority of today’s world population obtains its energy via cables, this method is still impractical in some locations and situations. For example, when military troops are navigating harsh terrain and setting up communications equipment or when UAVs must perform long-range or extended-time operations without landing.
Transmitting power wirelessly certainly isn’t a new concept–from capacitive and inductive coupling to radio transmission and Tesla coils–many ideas have been researched and are in use today. However, current commercial technologies provide neither suitable transmission distances nor power levels to practically supply remote locations with energy.
LaserMotive, a small group of engineers and scientists from Kent, Washington, has been seeking to change this story–and succeeding at it. Using the NI LabVIEW Real-Time Module, the NI Vision Development Module, and the NI 3110 embedded controller to control and aim high-energy lasers, they have demonstrated the ability to beam hundreds of watts of energy at a distance of up to 1 km, and over a kilowatt at shorter distances.
In a recent test, LaserMotive kept a small remotely controlled drone helicopter called the Pelican continuously in the air for 12 hours and 27 minutes. On standard battery power, the drone can last just 20 minutes. “Using LabVIEW and NI embedded hardware, I can rapidly get power beaming prototype systems up and running,” says software engineer Carsten Erickson. “I started building custom hardware and programming everything down to the stepper motor control code with C. With LabVIEW, my development cycle for prototypes takes about 25 percent of the time.”
So what’s the next frontier for LaserMotive? Besides pursuing both point-to-point and airborne power transfer opportunities, the company is also looking to the stars. LaserMotive won the NASA 2009 Space Elevator Games by powering a small shuttle vehicle up a 900 m cable–suspended from a helicopter–in under four minutes. Though space elevator technology is still a ways out, this could pave the way for substantially cheaper cargo transfer to space in the future.
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This article first appeared in the Q4 2011 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.