Beaming Power to UAVs, Space Elevators, and Someday, Earth: The LaserMotive Plan

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probably in the fall. The goal there is simply to go faster—to achieve an average speed of 5 meters per second, or just over 11 mph—up the same cable. The prize: $1.1 million.

Nugent and Kare’s team is gearing up for the competition by retooling its test system, which includes an 18-foot “vertical treadmill” that simulates the climbing course. They have outfitted it with new sensors that measure the forces and mechanical power from the robot’s motor, and new controls that let the team adjust the tension in the cable. Nugent says this kind of real-world testing was crucial to getting the contraption to work at Level 1.

But of course, LaserMotive also has its eye on more commercial applications than space elevators. Its first big market opportunity, Nugent says, will be to beam power to small UAVs, which run on electricity instead of gasoline; these things are in hot demand from the U.S. military, and widely used in places like Afghanistan. Other uses of LaserMotive’s technology are slightly further out, such as beaming power to disaster relief efforts like communication cells or makeshift field hospitals that might be set up after a massive earthquake or tsunami. And, in principle, the technology also could be used to beam power from the ground to satellites, military bases, or far-off weather stations.

Nugent says the company is starting off with “smaller, shorter-range projects to bring in revenue” while it builds up its technical capabilities to go to “higher powers and longer distances.” So far, its laser technology can deliver about 1 kilowatt at a distance of 400 meters, and has been shown to deliver power at distances of 1 kilometer. Nugent says the system won’t really work if there are clouds or fog in the path of the beam, but it can handle less dense obstacles like dust or rain. “That will decrease your efficiency, but won’t totally ruin it,” he says. Another issue is distortion of the beam over very long distances.

NASA Power Beaming Challenge "Level 1" Winning Team

On the business side, Nugent says, “The biggest obstacle is educating potential customers.” It’s something every startup faces, of course, but LaserMotive seems to have it particularly tough. “We’re trying to create an entirely new industry,” he says. “Nobody has done commercial power beaming. People don’t understand the benefits or costs.”

It’s still early days, so LaserMotive is content to keep proving its technology as it starts to acquire customers. The company just hired its first two full-time employees earlier this year. But Nugent says about a dozen people actively work there at any given time. So far, the firm’s financial support has come from its founders, the NASA prize money (see photo of the check and winning team, left), and a few outside investors and sponsors like Boeing, A123 Systems, and REI. Nugent says he might look for potential angel investors later this year.

So how long could it be before power beaming becomes mainstream? “People keep asking, ‘When can I power my TV or car with this?’” Nugent says. “That will depend on the technologies. The lasers aren’t going to burn you or cut you in half, but they are an eye hazard…It will take a long time of technology development.”

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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