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UAV flies on laser light

Lockheed and LaserMotive power an unmanned aircraft from a distance

1 min read
UAV flies on laser light

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 Spectrum profiled 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.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

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Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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