DARPA looks to leverage laser-equipped tankers to power drones

By Briana Reilly / June 13, 2022 at 3:50 PM

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking to explore the potential of turning existing tankers into so-called "airborne energy wells" that can use laser beams to send power to drones.

Agency officials want industry feedback on the possibility of retrofitting aerial refueling aircraft like the Air Force’s KC-46 and KC-135 with “an underwing power beaming pod” to wirelessly recharge a fleet of unmanned aerial systems, according to a request for information published today.

The solicitation, which lays out a July 11 deadline for submissions, notes such a solution “should have sufficient power for a 100 [kilowatt] or greater continuous wave laser as well as the thermal control for integrating the laser” onto the tankers.

The notice aims to gauge broader feedback from respondents surrounding industry’s confidence in creating and testing such components and subsystems, as well as the associated challenges of adapting equipment and missions to that new capability.

As for the drones themselves, the benefits of designing UAS to receive directed energy, the RFI states, are extended range and operations in addition to weight reduction of the vehicles’ organic energy storage.

An airborne energy well, the RFI states, could become one part “of a more expansive energy web of power generation, transfer relays and receiving solutions, enabling the Department of Defense to dynamically allocate energy resources to more flexibly deliver military effects.”

Officials are looking to use the RFI as a jumping-off point as they assess and build out aircrafts’ ability “to dynamically move energy across a network” of platforms with capabilities to beam energy and receive it, according to the notice.