Wednesday, April 10, 2024

DARPA’s speed-of-light energy network is one step closer

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced the main contractors for the first phase of the Persistent Optical Wireless Energy Relay (POWER) program. The program aims to revolutionize energy distribution through airborne wireless power transfer.

Three teams – led by RTX Corporation, Draper Laboratory, and BEAM Co. – will design and develop wireless optical power relays. The program goals include demonstrating the key components necessary for a resilient, speed-of-light energy network.

In order to accelerate development, the optical energy relays that were designed in the first phase of POWER will be demonstrated in pods carried by existing aircraft during the project’s second phase. Additionally, power beaming will pave the way for smaller, less expensive future aircraft by reducing fuel storage and engine volume. This will be examined through conceptual designs during the first phase.

Ultimately, these new, small, distributed platforms could supply cost-effective aircraft with limitless range and endurance to support military missions. Each relay design will be evaluated based on accurate and efficient energy redirection, wavefront correction for high beam quality, and throttleable energy harvesting.

In the third and final phase of the program, the relays will be demonstrated through an airborne optical pathway aiming to provide 10 kilowatts of optical energy to a ground receiver situated 200 km (124 miles) away from the ground source laser.

“Energy underpins every human activity, including defense. We need ways to deliver energy that overcome the vulnerabilities and other shortcomings of our current paradigm,” said Dr. Paul Jaffe, who leads the POWER program at DARPA. “The next leap forward in optical power beaming could hinge on relay technologies.”

Effective relays play a crucial role in creating a practical, flexible, and adaptive wireless energy web. These relays will address the issues of unacceptable conversion losses that occur when changing from propagating waves to electricity in a multi-hop network. The advent of relays will also allow for high-altitude transmission, which is much more efficient than beaming power through the thick, lower, turbulent atmosphere. This high-altitude optical layer will provide a long-range, high-throughput backbone for the wireless energy web.

The first phase will include benchtop demonstrations of critical technologies and is expected to last 20 months with the potential for a three-month option of additional risk reduction efforts. The second phase will involve an open solicitation in early 2025 and will focus on the integration of the relay technologies onto an existing platform for a low-power, airborne demonstration.

“This project has the potential to advance power beaming by orders of magnitude, which could radically reshape society’s relationship with energy,” Jaffe said in a statement. “A wireless energy web could unlock power from new and diverse sources, including from space, and rapidly and reliably connect them to energy-starved consumers.”