Beaming Up


How it Works:

  • Laser
    beams send energy to UAV from a fixed or mobile base station.
  • Special
    solar cells on UAV convert beam into electricity, charging battery in flight.
  • Wireless
    power enables UAV to fly farther and stay in the air longer.
  • Special
    tracking system on laser keeps beam focused on solar cell as UAV flies around
    base station.

Today, Tom Nugent is beaming power to 11-pound robots.
Tomorrow, he’ll be beaming power to the world.

That’s the long-term goal of Nugent’s company, LaserMotive.
The Kent-based research and development firm has developed a system of
recharging devices from a distance using laser beams.

LaserMotive won the $900,000 prize at the NASA-sponsored
Power Beaming Competition last year, when it was the only team to successfully
get a robotic elevator to climb 900 meters up a cable suspended from a
helicopter. To minimize the robot’s weight, the team powered it from a separate
energy source on the ground and employed a laser beam to send the electricity
to special solar cells mounted on the robot. 

“We saw the competition as a way to demonstrate that
technology, get some publicity and get some capital to start the business,”
says Nugent.

LaserMotive’s next goal is to show how it can use laser
power beaming to power unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as the surveillance
drones used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the robot
climber, these unmanned planes could be recharged in flight instead of having
to return to the ground for refueling, allowing them to travel farther and
spend more time in the air.

LaserMotive sees a growing market in the military’s
increasing reliance on UAVs. The Teal Group, an aerospace industry research
firm, forecasts that the market for UAVs will more than double by 2020 to $11.5
billion annually. 

Longer term, Nugent believes power beaming will be adopted
for applications like disaster relief. After the earthquake in Haiti, rescue
workers had to bring generators with them to Port-au-Prince. In the future,
power could instead be beamed from offshore. Lasers could also be applied to
send solar energy from orbital satellites to the surface of the Earth.

In the meantime, LaserMotive has to get the word out to
potential customers and the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration and
the Department of Defense, both of which monitor the use of lasers in the air.

UPDATE (7-19-10): LaserMotive has uploaded a video to its website, with interviews with the company founders.

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