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Powering drones in flight with laser light

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This image shows a Silent Falcon in flight near the Sandia Mountains with a rendering of a laser beam hitting the aircraft’s tail, where special photovoltaic panels will be mounted. (COURTESY OF DEFENSE ADVANCED RESEARCH PROJECTS AGENCY)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Defense wants to power drones in mid-flight by shooting laser beams at them, and two New Mexico companies are a big part of the effort.

Albuquerque-based Silent Falcon UAS Technologies and SolAero Technologies Corp. are two of four companies working to develop a laser-light-based electric recharging system under a two-year, $2.2 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Silent Falcon, which makes solar-powered drones for military and civilian applications, is modifying its aircraft as a test bed for the system. SolAero, which builds robust solar cells and panels for spacecraft, is developing a new type of photovoltaics to convert laser light into electricity.

Meanwhile, the Ohio-based laser-system fabricator Optonicus LLC is developing a ground-based beam transmitter to shoot laser light at drones overhead. And Colorado-based Ascent Solar Technologies is working on next-generation thin-film PV that could be used in the system.

“Both SolAero and Ascent are making new, specialized panels that will be sensitive to the frequency of laser light beams coming from the ground laser system,” said Silent Falcon CEO John Brown. “We’ll try out each of their panel systems to see which one works best.”

The PV panels will be mounted on the tail of the Silent Falcon, which is designed for long-duration flights. It will be tested at White Sands Missile Range in late fall or early January, Brown said.

Silent Falcon already did initial testing to explore aircraft modifications needed for the system. “We’re now designing and building the electric upgrades, which are substantial,” Brown said.

SolAero is building a new transducer to convert laser light, rather than sunlight, into electricity, said SolAero Business Development Director Ken Steele.

“It’s a new technology for us,” Steele said. “These are different wavelengths of light and intensity spectrum. There are challenges in capturing a laser beam of power rather than sunlight and converting it to electricity for routing into the Silent Falcon power system.”

Silent Falcon is receiving $1.4 million of the initial $2.2 million contract and is sub-contracting SolAero for its PV work. Assuming the tests are successful, the contract could be extended.

Optonicus is also building a tracking and acquisition system to pinpoint the laser beam onto the drone-mounted PV panels. That’s critical, because eventually the system is expected to shoot beams at drones up to 50 kilometers away, Brown said.

It could pave the way for indefinitely long flight times, said DARPA lead Joseph A. Abate in a prepared statement. He said the system could be “delivered to the war fighter in the near future.”

If successful, it also could have commercial applications.

“It could boost PV systems that rely on solar power when the sun is not shining,” Steele said. “We could potentially use a transceiver with lasers in the civil and commercial fields.”

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