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Gear, gadgets show Army's energy-saving side

Nov. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
engergy saving equipment MWM 20131114
A battery designed to be carried in a plate carrier is among a variety of energy-saving equipment on display at the Pentagon. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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A solar blanket and a smaller, more efficient version can help a soldier stay powered up. (Mike Morones / Staff)

No batteries? No problem. The Army is exploring technologies that power radios and other electronics by squeezing juice from the rays of the sun or the movements of a hiking soldier.

No batteries? No problem. The Army is exploring technologies that power radios and other electronics by squeezing juice from the rays of the sun or the movements of a hiking soldier.

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No batteries? No problem.

The Army is exploring technologies that power radios and other electronics by squeezing juice from the rays of the sun or the movements of a hiking soldier.

“We’re addressing the self-sustaining soldier with renewable power sources,” said Maj. Alex Mora, an official with the acquisition office for soldier equipment, Program Executive Office Soldier.

A high-tech leg brace the Army is developing generates energy from the natural motion of walking. At about 17 watts, it won’t change the world in a day, but it exceeds the Army’s current requirement of 3.5 watts.

That’s not all. Power-budgeting generators, solar panels and an insulated shelter with rigid walls — part of the Army’s efforts to reduce energy consumption — were among the technologies for combat outposts on display Nov. 14 at the Pentagon.

The idea is to save money and the lives of soldiers who man and protect fuel-hauling logistics convoys — and make soldiers more self-sufficient.

Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said the effort will give troops a lighter “foot-print” and allow them to be more expeditionary.

Soldiers could easily set up and break down much of the equipment on display, Chandler noted.

“We’ve been working off of fixed bases, and you get comfortable with the way things are. But we’re not going to have, in the future, these long, protracted conflicts,” said Chandler, who toured the display.

“We can find a balance between our environmental impact and our ability to be war fighters,” he said. “It does provide an economic benefit if we reduce fuel costs and the equipment footprint.”

Chandler noted that acquisitions officials design such gear with and for soldiers.

“They go out and listen to soldiers’ concerns and turn something around relatively quickly, though not overnight, to try to meet those needs and help us with energy costs, and I think that’s great,” he said.

Stronger batteries

Packages of expeditionary power solutions, designed to lighten soldiers’ loads, have already been fielded to five brigades. Two of the brigades are in Afghanistan.

The packages contain 2.6-pound, 150-watt flexible, wearable batteries that resemble armor plates. Because they use lithium ion chemistry, they can take a bullet and keep working, Mora said.

The Army’s smartphone-like Nett Warrior requires soldiers to have light, long-lasting batteries. The batteries power Nett Warrior and its link to the Army’s network, the Rifleman Radio.

“With their high power consumption, they would go for four hours. But with the conformal battery, the soldier can actually go for 20 hours,” Mora said.

The Army plans to field a cigarette-pack-size hub that pushes power and data between devices. A forward observer lasing a target, for example, could send its distance and direction to Nett Warrior, which would be used to call for fires.

Wearable smart textiles, fabric with wires weaved into them, could one day replace the cables on these hubs, further lightening the load. The Army had a working prototype on display that fed video from a small camera to Nett Warrior and powered a vest flashlight from a battery worn at the hip.

The Army has fielded its Squad Power Manager kit, which “harvests and scavenges” power from a variety of batteries, a vehicle or solar panels embedded in a small camouflage blanket. It’s as generous as it is omnivorous, able to power batteries, cellphones, tablets and radios.

“In the field, soldiers go out on a mission, they only partially use those batteries, and we can use this cable to deplete that battery to use that power somewhere else,” Mora said.

Renewable energy technologies for soldiers have their limitations, though the Army is working to make improvements.

The 60-watt solar blanket made of amorphous silicon cells, even under best conditions, would take three hours to charge one of the conformal batteries.

The Army is investigating the use of the semiconductor gallium arsenide, which is more than three times as efficient but costs 10 times as much as amorphous silicon.

Solar cells embedded in helmet and a back cover could generate a few more watts, along with the leg brace, made by Bionic Power.

“We’re working on the form and fit to make it lighter and more flexible for the soldier,” Mora said.

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