US Marines use backpack-mounted solar panels developed by the Office of Naval Research to fuel battery-powered gear in the battlefield.
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Whether you wear your technology or carry it with you, one thing doesn't change: the need to keep your electronic gear charged.
That presents a special problem for US troops moving into remote areas. Packing extra batteries for their GPS equipment, radios, and night-vision goggles adds a lot of weight to packs that weigh 125 pounds or more. Relying on generators to recharge batteries brings another set of logistic challenges and requires a steady supply of fuel.
To address the problem, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) led the development of the Marine Austere Patrolling System (MAPS), which combines solar power and an individual water purifier to help lighten Marines' loads when they are in remote locations. The combination of functions makes sense; normally Marines sent on a mission also must carry their own water supplies, which adds to their burden.
"The Marine Corps currently uses two versions of its primary battery," a rechargeable and non-rechargeable lithium battery, said Capt. Frank Furman, logistics program manager for ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department. The batteries -- about the size and weight of a brick -- primarily power radios and other equipment, such as radio-frequency jamming devices used to combat radio-controlled IEDs, he said.
In addition, Marines carry GPS systems, night-vision goggles, and other equipment that require their own batteries. Furman said Marines on a 24-hour mission might need four batteries, but would carry eight to provide a margin of error.
Furman said his team "wants to bypass all those different batteries and power them off a single central battery. At the same time, we want to be able to charge that battery via a flexible [photovoltaic] panel," he said. "This would not only eliminate some of your battery needs, but eliminate your need to carry different types of spares."
The prototype design relies on a flexible solar panel roughly the size of a piece of paper, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory, and a new, more flexible battery "that offers similar performance but in a flatter package," he said. "Instead of a rigid brick strapped to your body, you have a flexible package that's much more ergonomically friendly."
In a recent field test with the 1st Battalion 5th Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, the wearable solar-powered system proved its worth when the Marines carrying the MAPS were the only ones whose radios still had power.
The MAPS program continues to undergo testing in the field to look for ways to improve the system. The Naval Research Laboratory and its vendors are refining the solar technology to improve their performance. Delve into our slideshow to take a closer look at the project.
(Image: US Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office)