LaserMotive Beams Power to “Quadrocopter” UAV, Breaks World Record for Electric Aircraft

10/28/10Follow @gthuang

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and sometime after 7:30 am, it would come in for a choreographed landing in front of 50-odd media and dignitaries. But anything could happen overnight—mirrors in the optical system could overheat and malfunction, or something in the craft or its solar cells could break, or software could crash. There’s no way to know except to do it.

In the meantime, Nugent filled me in on the business prospects of LaserMotive, which he co-founded in 2007. The company is out fundraising—talking with angel investors, angel groups, and venture capitalists—as well as trying to land more contracts with corporate and government partners. One new market has emerged: beaming power to cellular communication towers in places where running a new power line or otherwise upgrading power equipment is too expensive. As for UAVs, Nugent said, the plan is to show potential customers (presumably UAV companies and government labs) that the power-beaming approach works in flight—perhaps at distances up to a kilometer or two. The first applications might be in disaster relief or military scouting operations.

I also took the opportunity to ask Jordin Kare, the co-founder of LaserMotive and a laser expert who worked on the “Star Wars” missile defense system in the 1980s, about the broader significance of what he was watching. “This is the first combination of power and control and duration,” Kare said. “What it really marks is being able to take an off-the-shelf vehicle and power it with a laser so it can do a lot more…The prospect of being able to keep airplanes and communication systems up in the sky forever is an amazing thing.”

On the practical side, Kare said an important factor in all this is how efficient laser systems have become. Although the current demo only converts about 10 percent of the power needed to drive the laser into flying the quadrocopter, it could be more like 20 percent once the team optimizes the technology. And beyond that, Kare thinks there might be some new way, some approach he hasn’t thought of yet, to make the craft’s solar cells better at squeezing more electricity out of the beam.

Until then, this world aviation record will have to do. This morning, in a quintessentially rainy Northwest setting, the quadrocopter came in for its landing a little after 8 am to a chorus of applause. Now maybe these guys can get some sleep—and get ready for the next big challenge in power beaming, whatever that might be.

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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