Seeking to solve one of the most intractable challenges of 21st century low-intensity warfare – supplying power to troops laden with electronic devices and deployed to remote battlefields – the U.S. Army is developing wearable solar panels that will be integrated into uniforms.
Today’s infantryman (or, rather, infantryperson) carries around a dozen pounds of batteries, according to Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). ”If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we’re saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field,” Hurley told Mashable.
More importantly, wearable solar could save lives: as documented in Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy for Military Applications, in forward operating theaters like Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous assignments is delivering fuel (and batteries) to soldiers in the field.
CERDEC is looking for other innovative, lightweight ways to provide what it calls “Soldier Power,” including kinetic energy. Bionic Power, a Vancouver-based startup, has developed a knee brace that would capture the kinetic energy of a marching soldier and supply it to portable devices. Called the PowerWalk M-Series, the brace could supply up to 12 watt-hours of electricity, enough to charge two or three smartphones. The lightweight device would be another step forward for the technology movement examined in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting.
Last year Bionic Power announced that it has secured contracts with the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Canadian Department of Defense to test the PowerWalk.
Paging Tony Stark
The eventual goal, naturally, is an Iron Man-style exoskeleton that can collect its own energy, enhance the wearer’s physical capabilities, and supply data and communications from integrated devices. Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the superhero armor is being developed by universities and commercial labs under the direction of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command. TALOS was first announced by the perfectly named Admiral Bill McRaven, the commanding officer of the Special Ops branch, earlier this year. It’s still somewhat theoretical – a prototype is not expected for at least 3 years – but it’s already spawning some potentially powerful innovations in materials research.
One of the most intriguing is a nanotech “liquid armor” that would morph on impact (i.e., when struck by a bullet) from a flexible fabric into an impenetrable shell. “It transitions when you hit it hard,” Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”
On the Runway
The military, of course, is not the only field interested in wearable solar and other futuristic forms of apparel. The fashion world is forging ahead in this area as well. The Wearable Solar project, launched by Christiaan Holland from the HAN University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, collaborating with solar energy developers and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, has produced a line of dresses with built-in solar cells.
“Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy,” Van Dongen told the online fashion magazine Dezeen at the Wearable Futures conference, in London.