The Army Wants to Power Up Dismounted Soldiers (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper
As the demand for power for dismounted troops grows, U.S. military researchers and industry are looking for cutting edge technologies to both supply energy and lighten soldiers’ loads.

Over the last 15 years, the power consumption of warfighters conducting dismounted operations has skyrocketed. Troops often carry a variety of gear that requires energy, such as radios, GPS, computers, smartphones, night vision goggles, infrared sights and counter-IED equipment.

In the 1990s, “the vast majority of the soldiers in these brigade combat teams weren’t carrying hardly any electronics gear at all,” said Army Maj. Ronald Schow, assistant program manager for soldier power at program executive office soldier. “As 9/11 occurred, and we’ve been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve started to address more user needs.”

The proliferation of radios and the introduction of Nett Warrior — an integrated situational awareness and mission control system — are the main reasons for the four-fold increase in power needs among squad leaders in recent years, Schow said.

“All of a sudden we went from having hardly anything to [having] multiple power requirements that the soldiers were wearing,” he said.

The extra weight that soldiers have to carry as a result of their battery loads is a concern, as troops often lug upwards of 100 pounds of gear on them when they are out on patrol. An infantry platoon currently carries about 700 pounds of batteries (17 pounds per soldier) for a 72-hour mission, according to the Army. The situation is likely to grow worse, officials said, because the Army has a plan to equip troops with a new individual rifleman radio. Doing so would precipitate a significant increase in power demand for the soldiers who carry them, Schow said.

Officials said the Defense Department and industry need to come up with ways to provide additional power while reducing the logistical load on soldiers in the field.

“We’ve got the warfighter transitioning from a single-shot rifle to [being] globally connected to the tactical network,” said Steve Mapes, deputy director for expeditionary operations in the Defense Department’s operational energy plans and programs office.

“With that increased capability comes a phenomenal power burden that the warfighter never had before. … We have to come to grips with that,” he said at a National Defense Industrial Association power conference in August.

Although the energy density of traditional batteries is improving, it is not keeping up with demand for more power, officials said. Consequently, the Defense Department wants researchers to push the envelope.

“We’re looking at trying to take a few more risks and have a little more high payoff, high risk stuff,” said Michael Brundage, chief of the tactical power branch at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).

“S&T in general in the military over the last 10 or 15 years has really been shortsighted because it has been focusing on supporting the soldiers that are at war,” he said. “The leadership has told us to start going back to the basics and thinking longer term. We want to go out five, 10, 15, 20 years [and] start looking at things that are higher risk, be willing to accept failure if we have to, and do everything we can to try to succeed. But we want to think longer term and really outside the box.”

One of the technologies that the military is looking at for soldier power is betavoltaics. Betavoltaic sources generate power from beta particles emitted by radioactive materials.

“They can last a long time [and] you can make them very small,” said Tom Adams, an engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane division, which has contributed to Army-applicable R&D.

But he noted that the industrial base for this type of technology is currently limited. There are only two major betavoltaics manufacturers — City Labs and Widetronix — Adams said.

“The lights are flickering. They need to stay alive, so we’ve been trying to get them funding,” he said.

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has solicitations out for betavoltaics technology, Adams noted.

“We need to get direct support to keep this technology advancing, otherwise it’s going to improve but it’s not going to happen very quickly,” he said.

To facilitate access and energy distribution for troops on the move, the Army and industry are working on “wearable” power generation devices that could be attached to a soldier’s vest or body armor. Schow said a conformable wearable battery (CWB) and power management system have been developed to simplify things for soldiers on the go.

“Our power distribution system will triple charge all those other batteries that are on the ends of those radios, so all the soldier has to worry about is managing his conformable wearable battery in order to meet his mission requirements,” he said.

The CWB and the connected power distribution system would result in a 17 percent net weight reduction for troops because they would need to carry fewer batteries, Schow said.

Another wearable technology that Army researchers and an unidentified industry partner are working on is next-generation fuel cells. Tony Thampan, a tactical power expert at CERDEC, said the technology would offer advantages to soldiers in the field.

“You don’t have to pull out the whole system like you do with a battery,” he said. “With this system you can just open it up, and the [fuel cell] cartridge pops out and you can put a new cartridge in there. So it’s a very quick changeout and it doesn’t interrupt their mission.”

“Without a centralized power system, if you wanted to change a battery in a radio, on your smartphone [and] all that stuff, you had to stop and change every single battery out. You had to go find your batteries,” he added. “This fuel cell system is a central power system, so you have to change only one power source.”

Thampan said CERDEC is about to deliver a ruggedized version of the wearable fuel cell, and the Army hopes to test it in an exercise next year.

“This is a potential alternative to the CWB, so they have a lot of interest,” he said. “As the soldiers are becoming more used to this Nett Warrior system and the batteries are becoming a limitation, there’s a lot of attention now being focused on this as far as how this could be a real capability enhancement.”

Currently, lithium-ion batteries are widely used by the U.S. military and they are considered the industry standard. Going forward, officials said lithium would still be of high interest.

“Right now the next focus for us is for lithium sulfur and lithium air chemistries,” Brundage said. “You’re always going to be dealing with lithium because … it’s the lightest” metal and “we have to focus on maintaining that lowest weight solution that we can.”

Ultralife Corp. and EaglePitcher Technologies Inc. have developed lithium carbon mono-fluoride manganese dioxide “hybrid” batteries, which utilize the advantages of each type of chemistry to enhance performance when it comes to capacity, energy density, discharge rate, shelf life and temperature range functionality. The technology will lighten troops’ loads because fewer batteries will be required to perform the mission, officials and members of industry said.

Officials expressed interest in further exploring hybrid technologies as a way of repackaging power systems to improve overall performance.

“You kind of get existing technologies [and] combine them in different ways to achieve different results,” said Vijay Acharya, an engineer with the Army’s soldier power program at PEO soldier.

Phil Robinson, vice president of defense power systems at Protonex, a Massachusetts-based fuel cell company, said there are several potential “double hybrid” system combinations, including battery-battery, battery-lithium-ion capacitor and fuel cell-battery. “Triple hybrid” systems are also in the works, he said.

“This is [useful] when … you need very high peak [power] capability but you also need high energy [duration] capability, and a single energy technology doesn’t give you both,” he said.

Robinson said using hybrid systems that better balance the two requirements would be more efficient. In the past, troops had to carry more traditional batteries to meet both peak power and longevity demands, but “now we can … carry much less weight and yet still complete the mission,” he said.

Officials are also interested in “harvesting” energy from organic and kinetic sources to keep equipment running and reduce reliance on batteries. One idea is the energy harvesting assault pack, which converts the mechanical energy generated by the movement of a soldier’s torso into usable electrical energy through a small generator in the rucksack.

Other harvesting technologies in the works include solar panels that could be worn on the head or back, and a “kinetic knee harvester.”

“Imagine a knee brace like an NFL lineman would wear, and with every step that he would take there’s a small generator … that would generate some power,” Schow said.

Prototypes of all three harvesting systems are being evaluated, and a production decision is expected in fiscal year 2018, he said.

As a long term goal, the Army is looking to supply troops remotely using wireless systems that could transfer power from a drone to solar panels or other devices that soldiers could plug into on the battlefield, officials said.

Mapes said some of these investments in cutting-edge technologies might not pay off for a while.

“The labs … are aggressively working,” he said, but “there’s an understanding that the return on that investment may be years away and there has to be expectation management.”

Although much focus is being given to power supply, officials said the Pentagon and industry also need to focus on the other side of the equation. Mapes suggested that the military might have to consider withholding power-consuming technology from some troops to reduce energy demand.
“How much capability does the warfighter really require?” he said. “We want him to have that combat advantage over the enemy, but at what cost? At some point we have to draw a line and say, ‘look, he’s got what he needs.’”

Mapes said industry needs to make products that consume less energy.

“The other part of it is engineering and developing more efficient equipment that doesn’t require all of those batteries,” he said in an interview. “Now in industry there’s an acknowledgement, there’s an awareness that you can’t just create a power hungry device. You have to engineer new power consumers with efficient attributes.”

On the business side of soldier power, industry executives said the battery market has dipped as U.S. combat operations have decreased.

“Over the last three years as the pullout or withdrawal happened out of Iraq and Afghanistan, our business on the military side is down quite a bit from where it was,” said Michael Manna, vice president of product management and technology at Ultralife. “We’re also focused a lot more on our commercial business because just the nature of the military spending right now. It’s a tough market to be in.”

Military suppliers are looking overseas for new opportunities.

“We’ve been focused on growing our international sales because we look at the world as being an unstable place right now,” Manna said. “There are a lot of unstable areas that … still require [soldier] power.”

Going forward, Manna said he expects the U.S. military battery market to “stabilize” and be “steady.”

Officials said major investments in new energy technology would be a priority.

“Our R&D budgets have remained fairly strong … even with sequestration and the other budget cutting,” Brundage told members of industry. “I don’t think that’s going to change. … I strongly believe that there are going to continue to be a lot of opportunities for collaboration and innovation with you, and that — translation — means money” for our industry partners.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of betavoltaics manufacturer City Labs.

Topics: Land Forces

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