DARPA Is Exploring Ways to Wirelessly Charge Drone Swarms

DARPA Is Exploring Ways to Wirelessly Charge Drone Swarms
Photo: Jack Guez, Getty Images

The Defence Research Intelligence Agency, the gonzo R&D arm of the Pentagon, has had a hand in inventing everything from GPS and speech translation to the early precursors of the internet. (The agency also tried to develop a mechanical elephant to traverse South Vietnam, but who’s keeping count). Now the agency is working with a startup to explore ways to wirelessly charge drones mid-flight.

The company, Seattle-based Electric Sky, was awarded $US225,000 (A$313,537) as part of DARPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program to create what they’re calling the world’s first “Whisper Beam” transmitter according to a press release. While previous wireless charging for drones has relied on microwaves and lasers that get weaker as they travel over a distance, the Whisper Beam aims to do the opposite and would get stronger as it approaches a receiver, the company’s CEO ​​Robert Millman said. Electric Sky reportedly uses a transmitter that sends out radio waves that then focus on the receiver, in this case, the drone.

“Whisper Beam technology is the electromagnetic equivalent of a whispering gallery,” Millman said. “In a whispering gallery a single listener across the room can hear the speaker but no one else can, not even people standing directly between the speaker and listener. The sound is too weak for them to hear.”

DARPA has a long history of interest in drone projects. For years, the agency has envisioned a program called OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) that would see drone swarms of up to 250 unmanned aircraft enter battle alongside small teams of soldiers. The agency believes these small drone armies could soon help soldiers in clear buildings in urban areas and conduct reconnaissance.

Earlier this year, DARPA successfully demonstrated its ability to catch a X-61 Gremlin drone and safely return it to a nearby C-130 plane mid-flight, an achievement seen as a significant milestone towards making drone swarms a reality. Meanwhile, the agency is also working on a counter-drone operation that would use drones attached with sensors to detect and classify other drones in urban environments, notes C4ISRNET. So many drones!

DARPA and its partners will have to solve the wireless charging problem (not to mention bring down drone costs) if these Call of Duty-esque swarms are ever going to find their way buzzing through battlefields. That’s where Electric Sky comes in. As part of the first phase of its work with DARPA, Electric Sky will build and test demonstrations that can potentially work at short distances. Data from those experiments will be used to upgrade the systems for longer distances. In theory, Electric Sky co-founder Jeff Greason told GeekWire Whisper Beam could work with any type of electric aircraft.

“It’s a myth that long-distance power transmission is impossible,” Electric Sky co-founder Jeff Greason said. “It’s just never been economical. This new method reduces the cost of the ground transmitter and the size of the vehicle’s onboard receiver.”

DARPA investments are worth keeping an eye on even if you’re not particularly interested in the prospect of room swarming imperialist death bots because many of the agency’s programs eventually trickle their way down to everyday consumers. Though DARPA probably didn’t invest in GPS research thinking the technology would one day empower a college student to incessantly track their pizza delivery at 4:00 a.m., well, here we are. It’s possible something similar could happen with wireless charging somewhere down the road, though it’s still far too early to tell.