DARPA Wants To Retrofit Tankers Aircraft To Refuel Drones With Laser Energy

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is exploring ways to extend the range and capabilities of drones through directed laser energy.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants U.S. Air Force aerial tankers to take refueling to the next level by powering up unmanned aircraft systems with laser beams of energy in order to extend their range.

DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office laid out the idea for the Airborne Energy Well concept in a Request for Information (RFI) seeking to explore wireless energy transfer for drones earlier this week. The agency wants to identify technologies that could be retrofitted into existing refueling aircraft, specifically the KC-46 Pegasus and KC-135 Stratotanker.

“This energy transfer ability may extend range and operations, with a similar impact that air-to-air refueling has had on DOD operations.”

DARPA statement

“While wireless energy transfer technology has begun adoption in small applications in the commercial space, the capability within the wide range of military applications has only been marginally explored,” DARPA said. 

“By leveraging power beaming, this same tanker could also recharge a network of UAS wirelessly,” DARPA said.

The agency said it wants to build upon the research and development of wireless energy transfer for UAS already underway.

“These UAS could be designed to receive directed energy to reduce the weight of their organic energy storage,” DARPA said. “This energy transfer ability may extend range and operations, with a similar impact that air-to-air refueling has had on DOD operations.”

Much like the traditional air-to-air refueling operations that extend tactical aircraft operational range and endurance, DARPA wants to explore tactical mobile energy production and distribution for future fleets of UAS, but without the need for physical connections.

Interested in Pursuing an Aviation Degree? Visit our Flight School Guide!

One possible strategy, DARPA said, would be an underwing power beaming pod that could produce a nearly continuous laser output of about 100kW.

The concept of extending UAS range through directed energy emerges as the Air Force looks to take other aspects of remotely piloted air combat vehicles airborne.

The Air Force is fully embracing the concept of pairing unmanned air combat platforms with piloted aircraft, such as the sixth-generation fighter and the B-21 Raider bomber, as a cost-effective way to build up fleet size , according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

DARPA said responses to the RFI are due by July 11.

Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?