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

4/13/10Follow @gthuang

Think it’s possible to shoot down a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes in mid-air? Or maybe you want to power up a remote flying vehicle? Tom Nugent is your man. The Seattle-area entrepreneur just might be the most versatile guy with a laser you’ve ever met.

Yes, a laser. Until recently, Nugent worked in the laboratory of Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, the invention company led by Nathan Myhrvold, where one of his projects was the so-called “photonic fence.” This effort has gotten lots of media attention, most recently for an impressive demo at the TED conference in February. That’s where Myhrvold showed a video of a laser burning the wings off a flying mosquito in super slow-motion. The idea is this technology, implemented on a larger scale, could help prevent the spread of malaria or protect crops against flying pests.

But Nugent’s focus now is on something that might be more practical: power beaming. That means using lasers to deliver energy to remote sensors, vehicles, or base stations. It’s a two-way trick: the receiver has to have a solar cell to convert the laser’s energy into electricity. But as long as the solar cell is viable, the technology could be useful in any situation where installing a wire is impractical, where batteries run down, or where it’s too expensive to truck in fuel.

That’s really just the beginning, to Nugent’s mind. One of his ultimate goals is to be able to beam large amounts of solar power to Earth from space, presumably to help solve global-scale energy problems. For now, though, he’ll settle for beaming power to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other remote devices, including very early technology that could help scientists develop something called a space elevator. These ideas, in sum, have turned into a small company called LaserMotive, based in Kent, WA.

Before dismissing these projects as far-fetched, a little background is required. The idea of power beaming has been around for decades. But advances in cheaper and more energy-efficient diode lasers have made it possible to pursue the idea commercially in the past few years. Even the rise of laser hair removal products (which you might see on late night TV) have helped things move forward. So in 2007, Nugent and fellow physicist (and Intellectual Ventures veteran) Jordin Kare, an expert on laser rocket propulsion and optics who worked on the “Star Wars” nuclear-missile defense system in the 1980s—decided to make a business out of power beaming, and co-founded LaserMotive.

“We think we can produce revenue while we get experience,” says Nugent, LaserMotive’s president.

LaserMotive robot for NASA's Power Beaming Challenge

Their first project: tackling the power beaming aspect of NASA’s “Space Elevator Games.” If you don’t know what a space elevator is, that’s OK—it doesn’t exist yet. The über-futuristic idea is to have a cable anchored to the ground, extending thousands of miles into space, that could be used to launch payloads into orbit. The space end would be unattached, and the Earth’s rotation would keep it taut so a robot “elevator” could move up and down the cable, carrying equipment. Sure, this would take billions of dollars and a few decades to get working, but it could ultimately make space operations much cheaper than using rockets. That’s the idea, at least.

If a space elevator is ever going to work, it will need power at multiple steps along the way. So, at “Level 1” of the NASA Power Beaming Challenge, held last November in Mojave, CA, Nugent and Kare’s team used a ground-based infrared laser to beam energy to specially designed solar cells aboard an 11-pound robot (see photo, left) driven by an electric motor. (All power must come from the ground.) The robot climbed a 900-meter length of metal cable suspended from a helicopter. Nugent and Kare’s was the only team to make it to the top with an average climbing speed of more than 2 meters per second—their robot went nearly 4 meters per second (9 mph)—beating out two other teams, who failed to reach the top. The prize was $900,000 (before taxes, Nugent laments—yes, it’s that time of year).

The upcoming “Level 2” competition will be held later this year, 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.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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