DARPA is making Nikola Tesla's dream of wireless energy a reality

DARPA is developing a global laser-beam wireless energy transfer network to provide near-uninterruptable power supply to U.S. forces worldwide.
Christopher McFadden
Could we soon realize Nikola Tesla's dream?


DARPA plans to create wireless energy transfer infrastructure to supply near-uninterruptable power to U.S. military bases worldwide. The plan, as reported by Popular Mechanics, is to use laser technology to beam electricity around the planet. Famously a dream of Nikola Tesla over 100 years ago, if successful, this technology, called fittingly enough POWER ("Persistent Optical Wireless Energy Relay"), would make the U.S. military less reliant on liquid fuel like diesel and vulnerable power lines, which can be intercepted or sabotaged by enemy forces.

“First of all, the environment has changed, and the need for more resilient energy transport methods for military operations is at a premium,” explained Col. Paul “Promo” Calhoun to Popular Mechanics in an exclusive interview. American forces operate globally like the special operations units he resupplied as a C-17 cargo pilot, from outposts in the South China Sea to the Iraqi desert. Since there is no simple way to power them, many forces use their radars, anti-drone microwave weapons, lasers, or other energy-intensive equipment. And with each passing year, the severity of the issue increases.

“On the technology side, significant advancements have been made in high-energy lasers, wavefront sensing, adaptive optics, high-altitude electric air platforms, safety interlocks, and narrow-bandgap-tuned high-efficiency photovoltaics,” Col. Calhoun explains.

“POWER is an optical power beaming program,” Calhoun says. “There are other potential power-beaming modalities, such as microwaves, that we intend to explore in future programs. For POWER, the propagating wave is a laser [that] provides long-range high-throughput capability when transmitted at high altitudes. The relays redirect the laser energy without conversion, and then the end-user converts that laser energy back into electricity using narrow-bandgap-tuned monochromatic photovoltaics,” he added.

Another critical piece of the puzzle will be reliable relays too. “Building on these advancements, DARPA sees a significant opportunity to revolutionize energy distribution by developing effective relays. These relays will allow these existing technologies to come together effectively to form a resilient, adaptive, multi-path wireless energy network,” Calhoun said.

Relays in the form of long-endurance drones and satellites will play a crucial role in the future. These drones, hovering at high altitudes, will transmit laser energy to each other over extended distances before delivering it to a U.S. military base. Similarly, satellites will perform the same mission in space.

“POWER is developing stratospheric platforms with small apertures ranging approximately 100 kilometers between nodes. With larger apertures and a more benign environment like space, distances between nodes of up to 1,000 kilometers are reasonable,” Calhoun added. The result would be a “globally scalable energy distribution network.”

As with all of its projects, once DARPA has demonstrated the POWER project's viability in theory, it will turn it over to other government organizations for actual implementation. Additionally, there are clear uses for POWER in the commercial sphere, such as supplying energy to far-flung communities, research facilities, and other challenging locations. Additionally, the energy could come from renewable resources, making it both environmentally friendly and widely available.

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