Lightweight, Powerful And Maybe Worth A Cool Mil

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
May 12, 2008 By Matthew Jones, The Virginian-Pilot
HAMPTON--For the past several months, Garth Nickle has been splitting his time between his home lab and a conference table at work, manipulating solar panels and fuel cells and soldering irons.
The challenge: design a lighter, longer-lasting battery pack to power all the electronics the modern-day soldier carries.
The prize: $1 million and a chance at a very big market.
Service members go into the field weighed down not only with food and ammunition, but with laptops, satellite phones, video and still cameras, radios, headsets, night vision devices and Global Positioning Systems. All these require power sources, adding additional weight.
The contest, sponsored by the Defense Department's director of defense research and engineering, aims to reduce the weight of power supplies by at least half while still providing an adequate amount, said Karen Burrows, the department's prize program manager.
Nickle works for Spectrum Communication Inc., a Hampton company that's one of about 100 teams nationwide still in the running.
The company began in 1999, consulting for the military and others on network security and systems. About a year ago, it formed Envision Labs to conduct research and development.
This past summer, Nickle, 36, spotted an ad for the "Wearable Power Prize" in a trade magazine. The company decided to pursue it, and Nickle started working on designs while still doing his regular job analyzing government computer systems.
Many Spectrum employees are military veterans or National Guard members, said Michael Nickerson, a vice president, so they have a real-world idea of what a foot soldier needs.
"Throwing tons of batteries at them is not a good option," he said.
Nickle began experimenting with different technologies right away. By December, the assembly had begun.
John Hopkins, of the Army's Research Laboratory, said he's seen great variety among the entrants' designs, including fuel cell and battery concepts, as well as internal and external combustion engines.
The government has excluded from consideration any materials that are radioactive or highly explosive, he said.
Spectrum settled on a hybrid system of solar panels, methanol fuel cells and other proprietary components that it prefers not to divulge.
The fuel tanks are the size and shape of 1-liter bottles, which means squad members can carry extras more easily. The tanks also have a longer shelf life than many other technologies.
Nickle, a former Air Force technical sergeant at Langley who now serves in the Air National Guard, said he wanted to use proven technology in the interest of safety and speed.
Soldiers have been known to strip their packs of gear if they're going on short missions and think they can afford to, he said. This can get them into trouble if the situation abruptly goes south.
"It's critical to have that technology to fight effectively," Nickle said. It's also critical to have enough juice for it to work and to make it as light as possible.
The teams have until early June to submit a safety and sustainability plan. The final test comes in late September at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
There, the entries will have to weigh in at less than 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) and provide an average of 20 watts of power for 96 hours, the length of a typical mission. The devices also will have to provide a surge of up to 200 watts for five-minute periods.
The first 92 hours will be on a testing bench. This continuous operation is a great leveler, Nickerson said, because someone's great idea could always fail over time.
Those that survive will head out for a final four hours in the desert under conditions simulating a real mission in the "Power Wear Off." This will include an obstacle course in which the contestants power their devices while standing up, lying down and rolling on their sides.
Burrows said there's a good chance the Defense Department could end up pursuing some of the technology it sees in the competition, whether it be one particular design or a mixture of several.
The real-world testing and applications are what most interest Spectrum. While the contest is a wonderful incentive, the company wants a product it can sell. Nickle plans to conduct his own field tests locally by this summer.
As is often the case, he said, what works in the military is useful elsewhere. A portable, storable power pack could come in handy for boaters or campers and during electrical outages.
But the company's focus remains on the military, he said, particularly the person carrying all that gear.
"Our threat is real world. A friend could be killed because he couldn't hear of an airstrike," Nickle said. "We want a usable device that can help them by next year, not next decade."