By Valerie Insinna
As the Army looks for ways to boost power sources without adding on bulky or heavy gadgetry, it’s also trying to improve how a soldier manages his power supply.
A two-pound conformal battery is the centerpiece of the Nett Warrior system, which is intended to improve troops' situational awareness and is currently being fielded by the service. A soldier can wear the battery in the side or front pocket of his vest, and the device is flexible enough to bend with the user’s movements, said Jonathan Novoa, a mechanical engineer with the fuel cell development team at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).
“This system allows the user to use a central battery to power all the peripherals that are on their person,” he said. “So instead of the soldier worrying about replacing various batteries of various types and all their devices, now they only have to worry about logistics supporting one battery."
But with the battery buried in the vest, the user currently has no easy way to determine how much battery life is remaining, he told National Defense on Nov. 15 at the Army’s operational energy exhibit at the Pentagon.
That’s where CERDEC steps in. Army scientists have developed an Android application that displays how much battery life is remaining as well as what devices are plugged in. Soldiers can download it to the Samsung Galaxy Note II smartphones that are part of the Nett Warrior system.
The app is still under development, but CERDEC hopes to eventually transition it to program executive office soldier to be used in the Nett Warrior suite.
It was tested in fiscal year 2013 as part of the Network Modification exercises held at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., he said. “Users were able to go on a mission, and while on their mission they were able to see what devices where connected and how much energy was available on their person.”
Not only would it allow individual soldiers to better manage their power supply, the application can also be used at the platoon level. For instance, if a squadron is running low on battery life, nearby squad leaders can communicate with each other by phone and pass off tasks to those with more available power, Novoa said.
“It allows more decision making to be made tip to spear, versus all of that needing to go all the way up for vetting before it comes back down to another squad,” he said.
This same concept could also be applied at the company level to help commanders better manage solar panels and generators, Novoa said.
CERDEC is developing a digital control that can be attached to a generator to extract information, such as whether the generator needs more fuel. That information could be sent to a company commander’s tablet, giving him a clearer picture of equipment health.
"Instead of having to send someone out behind the wire to check on a generator, now you can get all of that wirelessly over the network. So it saves on the assets having to go and do period maintenance. You can see when it needs maintenance, and then be proactive,” he said.
In the soldier system’s current form, data is routed through a single cable from the battery to the smartphone. Although this does drain some power from the battery, it’s not a constant communication link. "It's just a periodic ping” for information, which keeps the energy draw low, Novoa said.
CERDEC may pursue intelligent textiles for future iterations of the system, which would allow data and power to be transferred through the material of a soldier’s vest instead of using external cables.
It is already working on intelligent textile development, as well as a long-term goal of wirelessly networking the battery and smartphone together, he said.
During the expo, PEO soldier displayed one such prototype, designed by Intelligent Textiles Limited. Soldiers can plug a battery into the electronic textile vest, which can transfer data and energy to connected devices such as flashlights, smartphones or cameras.
"This will allow for a 40 percent reduction in cables,” said Maj. Joseph McCarthy, PEO soldier’s assistant product manager for soldier power.
PEO soldier also showcased energy harvesting devices, such as a knee brace that stores energy produced by a soldier’s movements. The device was developed by Canadian company Bionic Power and can generate about 12 watts of energy while walking on flatground, he said.
The program office demonstrated new wearable solar panels that soldiers can mount on their helmets or attach to the back of a vest. The flexible panels — manufactured by MC10 Inc. — are made of galliumarsenide, which is more efficient than the more common amorphous silicon-based panels. Worn together, the panels will harvest about 18 watts of energy, McCarthy said.
The e-textiles, solar panels and energy harvesters are still only prototypes and are still being developed under CERDEC and the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center contracts, he said. As such, fielding of any of these products are still years away.
"If these are determined to be viable solutions, then we can bring them within the soldier power program, and we would continue to do developmental testing to ensure that is the right fit for the soldier," he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Photo Credit: During the Army's operational energy exhibit, its Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center demonstrated an application that displays power supply information on a soldier's smartphone by Valerie Insinna.