In 2023, PowerLight Technologies was selected to work on the Luna Architecture 10 (LunA-10) power energy transmission infrastructure initiative with the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Blue Origin, developing laser-based wireless power transmission technology for supporting a future lunar presence on the moon.
Richard Gustafson, President and CEO of PowerLight Technologies, and Tom Nugent, the company’s CTO, sat down with Airforce Technology to discuss PowerLight’s work with the US military, including transmitting power to high-altitude drones as part of a separate DARPA contract, and powering US Army remote sensors using Directed Energy (DE) weapons during the long periods when these powerful counter-drone armaments are idle.
“In the defence sector, as missions have become more vertical and more distributed, the issue of delivering power has become a ‘premium’, and a gap to fill.”Richard Gustafson, President and CEO of PowerLight Technologies
“In the defence sector, as missions have become more vertical and more distributed, the issue of delivering power has become a ‘premium’, and a gap to fill,” said Gustafson. “Over a decade of hard science, test validation, and demonstrations in outdoor operational environments, really gave the credibility of this technology being real and viable,” he added.
These validation processes have seen PowerLight use wireless laser power to keep a drone aloft for 48 continuous hours, and directed laser energy along optical fibres to power a submersible Remotely Operated Vessel (ROV).
“The key program in front of us right now is power beaming to the stratosphere for high-altitude drones,” said Gustafson, remarking on Persistent Optical Wireless Energy Relay (POWER), the DARPA project to advance power beaming through the stratosphere to deliver power for global operations, in conjunction with Raytheon and Draper.
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Ahead of a demonstration of laser power beaming in space as part of the scheduled US Department of Defense Space Test Program, in March 2023, Chris DePuma, Space Wireless Energy Laser Link (SWELL) Program Manager at the US Naval Research Laboratory said that, “Power beaming is poised as a critical enabler for power distribution on the moon and elsewhere in space.”
Dual-use Directed Energy Weapons
In June 2023, in conjunction with US Naval Research Laboratories, PowerLight demonstrated the use of the DE weapons to transmit power to a remote location.
A direct example of the application of this new use is in the establishment of perimeter sensors and communications nodes at a new site. “Rather than having to send people out to regularly change batteries or refill generators, where they’re more exposed, or taking as long as it would take to set out wire, you can immediately place them and start having them get powered, providing that situational awareness or communications while the DE weapon is looking for potential incoming drones,” said Nugent.
In conversation with the Department of Defense, Gustafson was told that while the US had been investing billions of dollars in DE lasers, they were idle “99.9% of the time”, waiting to target and disable adversary drones. “So the opportunity was, ‘Might they be able to do another mission, and that could be potentially providing optical power?’ And so we took that program on,” said Gustafson.
“It’s convenient that the near infrared range where we have been doing power beaming overlaps with the range of where many of the directed energy weapons currently operate at,” said Nugent.
“By having supplemental power we’ve been told it’s a game changer opportunity, to have these platforms in the stratosphere, fully topped off for power to be able to be fully operational.”Richard Gustafson, President and CEO of PowerLight Technologies
Nugent was a co-founder of PowerLight, along with his late-colleague, Dr. Jordan Kerr, starting the company after winning a NASA competition in 2009. He acknowledges that power beaming as a concept has existed for decades, with early work on microwave power beaming starting in the 1990’s. Since that time, laser technology has advanced through efforts to introduce the tools into the production of industrial materials, but the innovation from PowerLight’s R&D has been in receiver design.
“We’ve done a lot on that to make large arrays that are able to be as efficient and robust and lightweight and reliable as possible,” said Nugent, “within the limits of the the current semiconductor technology for those photovoltaic cells.”
This achievement amounts to a 18-fold reduction in size of the receiver, reducing the payload demand on aerial systems. These advancement have seen the US Military install PowerLight’s receivers onto high-altitude drones that would otherwise rely on solar power and daylight to operate, and do not generate enough power from the sun to sustain themselves for day and night-time operations. “By having supplemental power we’ve been told it’s a game changer opportunity, to have these platforms in the stratosphere, fully topped off for power to be able to be able to be fully operational,” said Gustafson.
LunA-10 initiative to power infrastructure on the Moon
The LunA-10 project is among the first of its kind from DARPA, bringing 14 Prime organisations together to talk transparently about architecture interfaces, open standards, and the economics of a permanent lunar mission, establishing infrastructure to assist further missions in space for the US national interest, with PowerLight Technologies joining the initiative under Blue Origin.
“When people look around and try and find out who to talk to about long distance power beaming, the various groups who know point them all towards us. That’s the brief summary of how we got to be joined by Blue Origin for this LunA-10 program,” said Nugent.
Within the initiative, teams bring their own proprietary technology and understanding to discussions on building infrastructure on the moon. DARPA is focused on this end, and is looking to these 14 companies to provide guidance on what the end users will need and how this can be provided. “It’s different from later stage technology development from the DoD, where they have more direction on exactly how they want things to be developed,” says Nugent.
“The Lunar economy is yet to be seen . . . but there’s also the geopolitical race to get up there.”Richard Gustafson, President and CEO of PowerLight Technologies
“These teams work together on the assumption that a lunar infrastructure economy will have transportation and communication and power and all these other services that would not, in general, be provided by a single company. Those are the things that are different for how LunA -10 is being run by DARPA compared, in our experience at least, with some other defence projects.”
The question of what a lunar economy fully entails is still a subject of debate, and the size of the answer is a matter of trillions of dollars, according to Nugent. There is a belief that the growing commercial development in launch capabilities will bring more ability to send more materials and personnel to the moon. The water in the water ice that has been found in the lunar poles has raised interest in as a useful resource for sending missions further out into the solar system.
“I’m not gonna go through all of the list of things people said they could do on the moon that might be economical, but the real answer is nobody really knows yet. You have to break the chicken and egg problem,” said Nugent. “If you can start developing a little bit there, the expectation in my mind is you will learn what the value is on the Moon, whether it is just resources, or being able to go further into the solar system, or if there’s things people want to do there for science.”
“The commercial lunar economy is yet to be seen,” says Gustafson, adding there is a lot of of potential, and a lot of hope. “But there’s also the geopolitical race to get up there.”
Gustafson sees some sustainment activity on the moon as very likely to happen. “And for that to happen . . . there’s got to be a central foundational capability up there. In all sorts of different strategy documents the discussions are ‘How do you sustain anything in space or on the moon?’ And power is going to be a central piece of that.”