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The U.S. Navy Wants Swarm Weapons That Can Do Something Amazing

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Written by Michael Peck; Originally appeared at The National Interest

This would allow a drone “to ‘dock’ on a power line in an urban environment, scavenging magnetic energy as a means to trickle-charge its onboard batteries prior to mission continuation. 

The U.S. Navy Wants Swarm Weapons That Can Do Something Amazing

The U.S. Navy wants to develop drones that are powered by harvesting “battlefield energy.”

Which is a more charitable way of describing a drone that flies by stealing electricity from power lines.

The problem is that future conflicts are likely to feature clouds of small drones, whether operating in swarms to overwhelm an enemy, or a mini-drone carried in a soldier’s pocket that flies ahead to scout out a building. But tiny drones have tiny batteries measured in thirty minutes or so of flight, and the battlefield is not the place to search for an electrical outlet to recharge.

“The infrastructure to manage a future fleet of sUAS [small UAVs] in the field under austere conditions may be daunting considering the magnitude of battery recharging needs,” the navy notes. “It is also desirable to simultaneously increase mission duration and persistence; therefore, the ability to scavenge power directly from the battlefield would be an important military technology with other dual-use civilian applications.”

But what if the fighting is in a city, where there will likely be plenty of electrical poles and power lines?

This would allow a drone “to ‘dock’ on a power line in an urban environment, scavenging magnetic energy as a means to trickle-charge its onboard batteries prior to mission continuation, could provide significant tactical benefits,” according to the navy research solicitation , which is looking for answers from industry and academia. “If the energy scavenging source is collocated at the mission area, full mission persistence might be achieved and the micro- and small UAS may never need to return to base.”

Remarkable is the amount of energy that’s floating around a battlefield. “The types of energy harvesting that fall into this category are broad, and include vibrational energy, simple mechanical energy, and electromagnetic energy,” says the navy. “Sources of electromagnetic energy that is abundant and available for harvesting and conversion include high-voltage substations, transformers, and alternating current transmission line (i.e., power lines).”

High-voltage substations on the power grid generate AC electric field strengths that are “comparable to solar panels operating on a cloudy day.” As if that wasn’t tempting enough for drone designers fretting over how maximize the juice that keeps their progeny flying, the navy also suggests that wireless sensors could be placed around these power nodes to also siphon off energy to keep their batteries topped off.

All of which conjures images of flocks of drones hanging from electrical lines like pigeons. It sounds comical, but it actually revives an age-old concept. Napoleon’s armies were legendary for their ability to “live off the land,” foregoing the need for cumbersome supply by looting food and supplies from the regions they passed through.

A drone that can recharge its batteries from an enemy’s energy sources will have enough juice to conduct operations for as long as it is mechanically able. All at the enemy’s expense.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Sephy

    National interest is a trash like sputnik

  • Bigaess Wangmane

    A stupid idea all around, but their $700 Billion budget HAS to be spent on something

  • Tommy Jensen

    “Im guided by the beauty of our swarms of tens of thousands of Tomahawk missiles to make regime changes”…………………………..LOL. You guys are doomed man, you cant do a sh.t.

    • FlorianGeyer

      Except that the re-charging would take some time and swarms sitting on powerlines would be noticed. The power could then be switched off and the ‘ dead bodies’ falling to the ground collected and disposed of :)

      • You can call me Al
        • Django

          It seems that the Americans expect us in war times, our Christmas tree to light up the window, … Maybe we open our food banks too for their poor soldiers? I’ll start by pressing some more food stamps in English, … The only thing they have to do is send us a name list and say with how much they want to come by. We will organise a very warm welcome! LOL !!!

        • FlorianGeyer

          As Magpies or Cuckoos Al ?

          • You can call me Al

            Of Florian, cuckoos live in luxury apartments in trees.

          • FlorianGeyer

            That’s why my cats eat Cuckoos then :)

  • Garga

    The concept is not new. I remember in ’80s Canadians made an airplane that was powered by microwave. It was radio controlled and the goal of project was to use the earth’s microwave radiation for theoretically unlimited flight time.
    The model they built couldn’t fly everywhere, they had to either beam the waves into it or fly it near a radiation source, like radar installations. They used a ground-based transmitter which allowed the plane to fly in a funnel 2 kilometers at the widest. The model had a large disk-shaped antenna too. Try to hide that!
    Anyway, I can’t remember if the project came to any practical application fruition.

    Using power lines in an urban battlefield seems a little bit weird, considering the first targets in any US aggression are the power plants. But again, it’s the Pentagon, they need to find new ways to waste money like their lives depend on it!

    • FlorianGeyer

      ” But what if the fighting is in a city, where there will likely be plenty of electrical poles and power lines?”

      Most towns and cities where I live have all of the urban electrical supply via underground cables.

      • You can call me Al

        Maybe the drones can have a shovel as well ?.

        • FlorianGeyer

          I never thought of that:)
          JCB could make those.

  • Ricky Miller

    Ok. So wouldn’t the plan be to shut off the power as drone swarms are noticed on the perimeter of a defensive operating area? And maybe leaving and routing power to certain lines or substations, drawing the drone swarms in to put them in an autocannon kill zone? And if it’s Russia or China we’re talking about, the use of drone swarms to attack defenses would quickly trigger clauses in defense doctrine that leads to an overwhelming nuclear strike, at the least where forces including the drone swarms are basing from. Using drone swarms to destroy and kill isn’t just a stupid idea or a costly waste of money; it’s also an almost sure step to a nasty and painful future.

    • John Whitehot

      why not blasting it with a painfully high current when a short circuit is detected? i don’t think it would be that difficult.

      • You can call me Al

        Just asking here – wouldn’t a high voltage set the drone on fire and destroy it ?, I mean as opposed to high ampage.

        PS I can build you an oil rig, but know sweet fa about electrics (and electronics for that matter).

        • John Whitehot

          theoretically high amperage, because of the law of ohm where i=v/r.

          the intensity of the current represents the “destructive potential”, and is derived by the differential between tension(voltage) and resistance.

          so if you have 300000 volts, but a “conductor’ with 299999 ohms of resistance, the resulting current is harmless (actually not completely, but for the example it is)

          in this case, the electric net would be destroyed too (probably before the drone), so mine was just a kind of a joke.

          • You can call me Al

            OK, so high voltage lines have high ampage ?, mmmmm

            I am not arguing as the last time I did this stuff, was doing my Physics A-level (never a bit of information used afterwards).

            We are talking the main power lines – hence my question.

            https://cdn.sparkfun.com/assets/b/6/f/1/3/51881353ce395f9f3c000000.png

          • John Whitehot

            “:OK, so high voltage lines have high ampage ?

            not automatically – it depends on the amount of resistance along the line but in practice yes.

            the object in the picture is a ceramic insulator used to regulate the current output on main lines

            from what i remember, voltage (or tension) is constant and then subdivided to smaller lines and regulated through different resistors.

            even high voltage lines would not automatically kill a human if he closes the circuit – provided not much current is instantly passing through them

            anyway, I’m not good at teaching theses principles and there’s plenty of learning material online. Just remember that the familiar idea of the “measure” of a certain electrical power coincides with ampage (i in your picture, which represents ohm’s law), and not voltage.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9c4a4ef0272991038e8aab874787e385b222949dd6411cd79b8b7f552f78ccac.jpg

          • PZIVJ

            Higher voltages can also arc, in general the longer the insulator the higher the V. It is taken down by large transformers for safe distribution and nobody gets zapped (in theory) :)
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9548e8ba26cc4a29c99b90d21a0b94fc234c645b4a2cd71dd18258dde4ecbe58.jpg

          • You can call me Al

            I’ve got it now. Thanks.

        • PZIVJ

          There is a small magnetic field along a straight wire.
          Greatly increased with many loops.
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8faabc92866aa7c0e14b6e291f41ea5b5474eeb884703b7e221d9146bed53294.jpg

          • PZIVJ

            Household plug in transformer.
            Large voltage drop (potential) because there are fewer secondary windings.
            10 to 1 ratio. 120 to 12 volts.
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4b85c8fb22d83bfefcb26c40095e54d34ccd9bdf19503afbd8a0d62b6bfd86b7.png

          • John Whitehot

            in europe and most of the world is 220 or 240v 380v for industrial uses, 110v is mostly US only.
            There is also the problem of mono-phase / triphase current, although for the drones it would not matter.

          • PZIVJ

            Triphase is 3 hot wires (how it comes from the generator), why you always see groups of 3 on the higher tier of poles and towers. Many pole transformers are monophase, only one hot connected to it.

          • John Whitehot

            the transfer of electric current from two mediums in physical contact is a well known process.

            Have you seen those new huawey phones that can share battery charge by adjoining the two screens? The charge passes from the more charged battery to the more charged one.

            In any case, provided the US is telling the truth on this subject (all to be verified), I ‘ve got several doubts on the real reliability of the process.

            For example, which power lines is intended to exploit? There are various kinds of them, and very different.

            A high-voltage line (those on the highest pylons several tens meters high) would need a much larger and heavier converter than a medium-voltage one (those that run out of electric boxes and connect to single blocks hubs). Both converters would seem out of specs for light drones.

            Aircraft normally operate with 24V DC batteries for DC and engine-driven generators for AC. Drones, with their electronic equipment, would definitely not be able to operate without AC.

            The inductance coil you describe is good, but it cannot simply operate on every possible electric cable available. It would either burn, or not work at all in most cases. So the question is, how is such an universal conversion performed? and how does such hardware fit on drones admittedly in the class of a few kilograms?

          • PZIVJ

            The article is revering to a trickle charger over time.
            So I guess the electronics do not have to heavy, Light wire for coil with an insane number of windings, and a charge sensor to shut it down.
            Should not burn out because the field is not strong enough to do that.
            But go to a substation for a quicker charge. :)

          • You can call me Al

            ?, right – OK, thanks.

          • You can call me Al

            Oh enough. Just build charger sites on the support poles.

  • Brian Michael Bo Pedersen

    Funny, if you create your own solarpanels you get fined and can end up in jail, but if the US navy says they want drones to steal electricity, they get funded….

    Hooraaay for the free World and modern civilization ….

  • gustavo

    Well, these psico needs new toy to play with and to use human being to practice. This hugh amount of money must be spent somehow, any new crazy idea is well come.