DARPA has issued a formal request for information (RFI) for the Airborne Energy Well project – a method of recharging drones while in flight using laser-shooting tanker planes. Once in use, the technology is expected to be a “force multiplier,” increasing the speed, range, lethality, flexibility, and versatility of drones.
The aerial recharging project will seek to retrofit aerial refueling aircraft such as the Air Force’s KC-46 and KC-135 with “an underwing power beaming pod” to wirelessly recharge a fleet of unmanned aerial systems as they continue operating. The proposed laser solution must have sufficient power for a 100 kW or greater continuous wave laser, as well as thermal control to support operations in mid-air. Participating firms should be able to provide an initial approximation of the amount of energy that the tech could generate, and the equipment must be capable of beamforming laser energy in remote locations. Proposed solutions must also incorporate processes and components that have achieved technical readiness levels of six or higher – meaning they have been successfully demonstrated under realistic conditions.
“This Airborne Energy Well is a potential component 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,” the RFI states. “Responses to this RFI will be used to inform and explore future programs that advance the ability of airborne assets to dynamically move energy across a network of aircraft equipped with energy beaming and receiving technologies.”