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Army Powers Up Individual Soldiers

March 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
The U.S. Army’s Electronic Data Manager enables members of an aircrew to plan missions and react to mission changes in flight. These devices require power sources that are lightweight and long lasting. More than 1,000 of the systems have been fielded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Service searches for longer lasting, lightweight batteries to energize the force.

Bringing the network to warfighters will be futile without a source of energy to feed the numerous devices they will rely on for survival and lethality. Today’s fast-paced high-technology battlespace is screaming for long-lasting, lightweight batteries, and the U.S. Army is answering the call by exploring battery chemistries and smart batteries as well as working with equipment designers. In some areas, the service has made great advances; in others, it is still waiting for the technological improvements that industry promised years ago.

Leading the charge to develop the highest density, safest and most cost-effective energy technologies for the warfighter is the Army Power Division of the Command and Control Directorate. The directorate falls under the auspices of the Communications–Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Steve Slane, chief of the battery branch in the division, says that in its quest for longer lasting and lighter batteries, CERDEC is exploring many possibilities, from advances in fuel cells to biomimetics to nanotechnologies. His organization focuses on both disposable and rechargeable batteries and concurrently monitors advances in some rather futuristic energy-generating possibilities such as harvesting heat or motion to produce power.

The need to improve battery technologies is reaching critical mass as each service adapts to the pragmatic side of the network-centric warfare concept. Individual warfighters are crucial points in the network and use electronics to both gather information and quickly share it with others. To accomplish these multifaceted tasks, soldiers today employ not only radios but also thermal weapons sights, laser range finders, handheld global positioning systems (GPSs), aiming lights, chemical-biological detection apparatus and sensors. Much of CERDEC’s current work concentrates on improvised explosive device detection and countermeasures, Slane notes.

Feedback from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq indicates that batteries are still relatively heavy. In addition, electronic devices require so much power that batteries do not last long. “It’s a universal complaint both in the military and consumer markets, and it’s something we all understand. The difference on the consumer market side is that companies pay a great deal of attention to the power draw. Sometimes, Army equipment developers don’t use power draw as a key metric in their designs,” Slane relates.

In the past, devices were developed, then designers would search for a battery. “They would come to us and say, ‘You have this little space in the corner of my box to put a battery in, and oh by the way, we need it to last long.’ And it doesn’t work that way. So the earlier we can get involved, the better the solution is for the soldier,” he says.

Slane admits that soldiers have devised their own clever ways to solve power problems. Warfighters have tapped into vehicles for power or used cables to tether their devices to larger batteries. And CERDEC does not dismiss this type of creativity; in fact, it encourages it. When soldiers share with CERDEC their ideas about how to integrate better power sources for their devices, center officials often increase the robustness of the solutions then make them available to all service members.

As they examine new ways to power devices, researchers at the center are pretty clever themselves and are reaching out to experts in other organizations. They have collaborated extensively with researchers at the Army Research Laboratory, national laboratories, universities and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to find more advanced battery chemistries.

In addition, the CERDEC team is working on smart batteries—similar to those found in laptop computers—that indicate the amount of power remaining and alert a user when power is low. “We’re now implementing that in all of our Army batteries, and that will enable soldiers to gain a higher utilization of the energy that’s in their batteries,” Slane explains.

Members of CERDEC’s battery branch also are working on what could be considered a less conventional way to squeeze out every ounce of energy from batteries. They recently developed what they call the Eight Pack Scavenger, which enables soldiers to recharge commercial AA batteries from existing Army batteries. “So previously, when a big radio battery got down to 10 or 20 or 30 percent of its available energy, a soldier would typically throw it away. Now, we’ve given them devices that they can plug into that battery, use up the remaining capacity and recharge other batteries,” he shares.

Rechargeable batteries have become a big part of Army life in the field today. The service is following the consumer market in this area, and when foreign battery vendors improve lithium ion technology, which increases run time for laptops and cell phones, the Army takes advantage of the improvement by packaging the same products. Another advantage is that the rechargeable AAs outperform alkaline AAs in the high-rate soldier devices. So, for the high-end devices such as GPS and a lot of the thermal weapons sights, the soldier will experience a longer run time, Slane adds.

Advances in rechargeable technology do not mean that the Army has given up on disposable batteries. Slane reveals that one of the most significant advances recently occurred in this area when the Army converted its batteries from lithium sulfur dioxide to lithium manganese dioxide. It was the first time in the past 15 years that such a substantial change had taken place, he says. Lithium manganese dioxide batteries with the same form factor provide approximately 50 percent more power than the previous chemical batteries.

Although many in the military and commercial sectors were hoping fuel cell technology would be viable by now, Slane says development is taking longer than companies promised. “Reliability’s still not there, but it’s getting close. Even as a battery guy, I’m a little bit more optimistic now about what a fuel cell can do,” he states. Fuel cells could be available within the next five years, he adds.

Slane’s team is well aware that it has to keep future soldiers in mind as it designs batteries. Systems currently in development such as Land Warrior, Future Force Warrior and the Ground Soldier System integrate warfighter devices that will operate from a single power source. CERDEC is heavily involved in supporting these programs so this power source will have one form and will use a single charger type. The power sources on future battlefields also will be interchangeable so they can power many different devices in the battlespace.

 
The Vector IV-Binocular Laser Range Finder is among the battlefield devices that require power. The equipment enables warfighters to observe and accurately locate targets.
In addition to future integrated soldier systems, CERDEC battery team members predict other technological advances that will require power. For example, warfighter uniforms will feature micro climate control systems that will keep them cool in warm temperatures and warm in cold ones.

The researchers also are witnessing substantial growth in the areas of robotics, unmanned vehicles and unattended ground sensors. “We have these technologies already, but we’re seeing the need to grow power sources as more of those devices are fielded or at least in the development pipeline,” Slane says.

Recognizing that novel devices are on the horizon, CERDEC has been exploring some futuristic power sources as well. The researchers have been concentrating heavily on nanotechnologies for the engineering of materials. Using breakthroughs in nanotechnology, a battery cathode could be created in smaller particle sizes, which provides more surface areas and improves a battery’s performance.

Additionally, they have recently become aware of work underway in bio-inspired and biologically designed materials. This research is still in its infancy at university laboratories, Slane allows, but CERDEC engineers believe the current work could lead to the design of materials for power sources. The center will get involved in trying to mimic how proteins are formed, for example. “If we can do that, then we can modify the properties of materials,” he explains.

Although Slane’s organization is responsible for the Army’s batteries “from design to disposal,” it is not the only sector in the Army, or the U.S. Defense Department for that matter, that is exploring innovative power supplies. As one of the six major subsystems of the Future Warrior Concept, for instance, the ArmySoldierSystemsCenter in Natick, Massachusetts, has outlined the futuristic power supply of an individual soldier’s unique uniform. Called Duration Central, it comprises a 2- to 20-watt micro turbine fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon. The soldier would have as much as six days of power from 10 ounces of fuel contained in a lightweight plug-in cartridge. Polymeric nanofiber battery patches that are embedded in headgear and weapons would act as a backup power source that continues to supply power for up to three hours.

Slane relates that CERDEC has studied energy source techniques similar to the SoldierSystemsCenter’s energy harvesting projects, which involves gathering energy from body heat or a soldier’s motion as well as the sun. Today as in the past, these methodologies yield very little power, but Slane admits they are approaches that should be watched for advances in the future.

DARPA also is working on possible energy sources for the future. A project called Palm Power focuses on producing electric power devices for individual or small groups of soldiers and is developing compact fuel cell and thermal-to-electric energy conversion technologies. Soldiers could carry the portable units, alleviating the need for large diesel generators that must be towed on trailers. DARPA’s goal is to demonstrate proof-of-concept prototypes for these portable power sources that could be combined with conventional batteries to increase endurance.

Batteries may not be as high profile as military weapons, communication systems and computers, but Slane points out that they still affect military strategies and tactics. In fact, the length of many missions is determined by the amount of power soldiers can take with them. “Batteries have to be treated the same as bullets and water. When logistics resupply bullets and water, they have to resupply batteries, and sometimes that’s a burden. That’s one of the reasons we really work hard on rechargeable solutions, scavenging devices, solar devices and even vehicle chargers if a vehicle is accessible to soldiers in the field. Soldiers don’t need to wait for the logistics tail for their batteries; they can use the energy around them to keep the mission going. That’s really one of our key focuses,” Slane says.

Until such capabilities are available, CERDEC’s Battery Branch will continue to work with industry to develop more energy-efficient products for the military. Slane maintains that having companies take responsibility for increasing power efficiency would reduce both life-cycle costs and soldiers’ burdens. He also encourages companies to develop products that can be sold in the commercial market so that production costs make products more affordable to the Army.

 

Web Resources
U.S. Army Power Division: http://commandandcontrol.monmouth.army.mil/army_power.htm
Soldier Systems Center–Natick: www.ssc.army.mil