Lockheed Martin and its Seattle-based partner, LaserMotive, yesterday announced that they have successfully powered an unmanned aerial vehicle, Lockheed's Stalker, with laser light. It was the first outdoor test of a system that’s meant to keep an electric UAV aloft far longer than its batteries alone could manage.
Other companies have used photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy in fight. But you can’t do that at night or on cloudy days.
Last month Lockheed and LaserMotive powered this same military surveillance aircraft in a wind tunnel for two full days. The laser reaches just 600 meters, but that’s enough to keep a UAV in an orbit that gives troops a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings. The point of the test was to show that the laser beam could draw a bead on the UAV’s photocells without damaging the craft, despite the plane's maneuvers and despite air turbulence.
LaserMotive is based on the more general idea of using lasers to transmit power. Co-founder Jordin Kare, whom IEEE Spectrumprofiled in 2011, had long wanted to use lasers to carry rockets into space by boiling a liquid propellant into vapor. But LaserMotive started small, winning a prize from NASA for its success in powering a robot cable-climber and then moved to toy helicopters before tackling military-grade UAVs.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.