New Power Technology for Underwater Drones

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Unmanned underwater vehicles have made a splash in the defense market, but powering them is still an issue.

Open Water Power, a Massachusetts-based start up company, is currently developing a device that uses aluminum-based power systems to juice up underwater drones for what CEO Tom Milnes said is a significant improvement over traditional batteries. 

“Our technology is best suited for moderate power, long-duration underwater [vehicles],” Milnes said. “We are a great fit for things like UUVs, manned submersibles … and we’re also very well suited for ocean-floor sensors.”

The company was founded out of a joint research project between MIT and Lincoln Labs, he said. In the fall of 2011 the group was tasked with finding a way to extend the endurance of a UUV, and by the second year of researching found that aluminum would be a good material to use, he said.

“Typically if you put an aluminum can in water, or if you put water, or soda or beer in an aluminum can, the aluminum corrodes very, very slowly. So slowly that you can use aluminum as a container for liquids,” he said. “But it’s releasing a lot of energy per volume as it corrodes. ... Essentially, what our technology does is speed that reaction up and allow it to proceed at a controllable level creating power levels that are useful for vehicles,” he said.

Open Water has currently produced prototype cells of its technology, Milnes said. “The science and technology development is behind us. We’ve demonstrated the cells working. They’ve been tested for safety at [Naval Surface Warfare Center] Carderock and determined to be as safe as a power system can possibly be,” he said.

By next year the company should have its first ocean-going prototype, Milnes said.

The system can power a vehicle 10 times as long as a traditional lithium-ion battery, he said. For very low powered systems, such as those that sit on the ocean floor in cold water, it is possible they could last for years.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology

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