Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Electronics And The Grunt

When I served in the military we didn't have fancy battery-operated gizmos attached to our weapons or equipment. Those were simpler days.

Current soldiers (you should pardon the expression) have electronic weapon sights; electronic night vision systems on their helmets; data links to their team or patrol leader, and from him to higher command echelons; radio control units for small UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles); and a host of other command, control and combat systems. Future soldiers will have even more: 'In addition to communications and computers, a myriad of applications for the dismounted soldier of the future will require portable energy, including such things as laser-designators, chemical-biological sensors, uniform ventilators, and exoskeletal enhancements.' The Department of Defense 'estimates that future warfighters will carry approximately 9 kilograms (almost 20 lbs) of batteries to complete a 96 hour mission.'

The result of all this equipment, of course, is a huge demand for batteries in the field. To make matters worse, often partly-used batteries must be replaced and discarded prior to a mission due to the risk of their running flat at a critical moment.

It seems the Department of Defense is doing something about the problem. They've announced that 'the inaugural $1.75 million Wearable Power Prize competition will be held at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC), Twentynine Palms, Calif., Sept.22 until Oct. 4, 2008.' This competition offers first prize of a million, second prize of half a million and third prize of a quarter of a million dollars. The idea is for competitors to 'demonstrate wearable systems that can power military equipment for 96 hours, but that weigh less than half the current battery load.'

It sounds like a really tough contest. There's a comprehensive list of rules here. Entries must weigh no more than 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) including any fuel they require. For a system that light to produce significant power output for a full four days is going to be tough. There are all sorts of options under consideration to produce the desired result. To list only a few:

- Miniaturized fuel-cell technology;

- Generators in the boots powered by the movement of the feet;

- Solar panels mounted on helmet and/or pack;

- Nanotechnology generators in the form of fibers woven into the uniform which generate electricity by moving against one another as the soldier moves around;

- Wind-powered generators for use at stops and rest points.

One company's approach is described here. It's going to be fascinating to see how this competition works out. It might conceivably produce equipment generating enough power to see a soldier through an entire extended mission.

One problem I can foresee, though . . . what happens if a soldier wearing a 'generating suit' is hit by enemy fire? Will he be electrocuted as well as shot? That would indeed be a shocking development.

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself! :-) )


1 comment:

MadRocketScientist said...

I'm actually excited about the residual technology a competition like this can bring. Imagine not having to carry extra batteries on a long wilderness hike because your devices can charge while you walk.

Another side effect of such technology becoming prevalent is that it could be marketed to kids to charge their cell phones, Ipods, and PDAs. Since you have to walk to charge things, kids would actually get off their butts and walk more.