Home Americas The US Army will soon have unmanned vehicles recharging drone swarms

The US Army will soon have unmanned vehicles recharging drone swarms

US Army autonomously recharging drones
The University of Illinois Chicago is developing algorithms that will help small UAS autonomously return from missions to unmanned vehicles for recharging. Photo: University of Illinois Chicago

Unmanned air vehicle swarms will soon be able to descend on unmanned ground vehicles to autonomously recharge, thanks to US Army-funded research now underway at the University of Illinois Chicago.

The US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory awarded the University of Illinois Chicago a four-year, $8 million cooperative agreement in August to develop foundational science in two critical propulsion and power technology areas for powering future families of unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs.

This collaborative program will help small battery-powered drones autonomously return from military missions to unmanned ground vehicles for recharging.

The university is developing algorithms to enable route planning for multiple teams of small unmanned air and ground vehicles.

Dr. Mike Kweon, program manager for the laboratory’s Versatile Tactical Power and Propulsion Essential Research Program, said the research on route planning is critical to the Army. The service needs intelligent, small UAS that can find optimal routes during a military mission to autonomously return to unmanned ground vehicles, known as UGVs, for recharging. This will optimize the operational range extension and time on mission.

“Imagine in the future, the Army deploying a swarm of hundreds or thousands of unmanned aerial systems,” Kweon said. “Each of these systems has only roughly 26 minutes with the current battery technologies to conduct a flight mission and return to their home before they lose battery power, which means all of them could conceivably return at the same time to have their batteries replaced.”

The use of fast, recharging batteries and wireless power transfer technologies will allow multiple small UAS to hover around unmanned ground vehicles for wireless charging, and this will not require soldier involvement.

“I believe this is the only way to realize practical UAS swarming, and small UAS and UGV teaming. Without solving how to handle the energy demand, all other advanced technologies using artificial intelligence and machine learning will be useless for the Army,” Kweon said. “On the battlefield, we do not have luxury to replace batteries for 100s of UAVs and recharging them for hours.”

For larger drones, Army-funded research will explore the fundamental science needed to develop miniaturized fuel sensors for future multi-fuel hybrid electric propulsion systems.

Fuel property sensors that university partners are developing will help Soldiers who operate fuel-based equipment measure fuel property in real time for the Army’s air and ground vehicles, Kweon said.

This knowledge will allow Army personnel to prevent catastrophic failures of the systems and to increase its performance and reliability.

“This research is critical not only for air vehicles but also ground vehicles, especially for the Army missions,” Kweon said. “The fuel sensor is telling the operator what type of fuel is being delivered from the fuel tank to the engine. This input signal can be used to intelligently tell the engine to adjust engine control parameters according to the fuel type to avoid any failures. This data can also be used to find root-cause failures if any engine component prematurely failed.”

This university-led research project is one of 11 funded this summer by the Army’s corporate research laboratory as a part of Center for UAS Propulsion efforts to develop technologies for multi-fuel capable hybrid-electric engines and fast efficient energy distribution.

The research, slated to begin this fall, is part of a larger research portfolio of multi-fuel capable hybrid-electric technologies led by the laboratory that supports the Army Modernization Priority for Future Vertical Lift. Most recently, the laboratory recently announced the development of a new, advanced scientific model that will allow vehicle maintenance specialists to turn to bio-derived fuels in austere locations, and efforts to convert a home-based generator into a power source for autonomous ground and air vehicles.