By: InnovationNewsDaily Staff
Published: 07/16/2012 01:23 PM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily

A silent drone flown by U.S. Special Forces could stay in the air forever, in theory, if power were being beamed to it from a laser on the ground. That exciting possibility came up during an indoor flight test showing how a laser could power a Stalker drone for 48 hours.

The electric version of Lockheed Martin's Stalker has a battery that usually lasts just two hours, but in the test, a laser power system wirelessly recharged a drone battery in midair for 24 times as long. Such a system, if proven in actual outdoor flights, could give U.S. Special Forces a steady robot friend in the sky to watch for targets or approaching enemies.

"This test is one of the final steps in bringing laser-powered flight to the field," said Tom Nugent, president of LaserMotive, which made the laser power system used in the test. "By enabling in-flight recharging, this system will ultimately extend capabilities, improve endurance and enable new missions for electric aircraft."

LaserMotive previously made its mark by winning NASA's space elevator contest — a challenge to build machines powered by laser beams that can climb a cable toward the sky.

The drone flight test took place in a wind tunnel to simulate flying conditions. By the end of the test, the Stalker's battery actually held more stored energy than it did at the beginning.

"We're pleased with the results of this test," said Tom Koonce, the Stalker program manager of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. "Laser power holds real promise in extending the capabilities of Stalker."

A next step for the Stalker involves testing the laser power technology during an outdoors flight.

Laser power may work very well for electric drones the size of the Stalker, which has a 10-foot (3 meters) wingspan, but bigger electric aircraft have turned to different solutions for their higher power requirements. A planned trans-Atlantic flight of an electric aircraft will use drones to deliver fresh batteries in midair.

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    <strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's stealth Phantom Ray took to the skies for the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/05/bds_phantom_ray_first_flight_05_04_11.html" target="_hplink">first time in April 2011</a>. According to Boeing, the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/advertising/bma/unmanned/unmanned_05.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Ray can perform missions</a> such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and electronic attack. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown. This is a "demonstrator" so there will likely be a future variation of the Ray.

  • General Atomics Predator Avenger

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  • Suicide Switchblade

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  • Army A160 Hummingbird Drone

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    <strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: Northrop Grumman <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/mq8bfirescout_navy/index.html" target="_hplink">describes the Firescout</a> as a "Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system provides unprecedented situation awareness and precision targeting support for U.S. Armed Forces of the future. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=237497" target="_hplink">March 2013</a>

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    <strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: A carrier-based combat drone, <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/index.html" target="_hplink">Northrop Grumman's futuristic X-47B</a> flew in its cruise configuration <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=239278" target="_hplink">for the first time</a> on November 22, 2011. It can land with precision on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, and features twin weapons payload bays that hold up to 4,500 lbs. (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/X-47B_Navy_UCAS_FactSheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>). <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/navy-killer-drone-refuel/" target="_hplink">2018</a>

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