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US Marines Test Solar Power Vest That Talks To Itself

The US Marines are testing a new tricked-out vest that will power their portable electronic gear partly with solar energy. The goal is to relieve the logistical nightmare and physical challenge of carrying conventional batteries into the battlefield, enabling Marines to function effectively in remote or hard-to-supply locations for longer periods of time.

As military technology has a history of skipping over to the civilian sector, it’s worth taking a look to see what they’re up to.

Flexible Power For The US Navy And Marine Corps

Our regular readers may have noticed that when we cover advanced solar power and related R&D projects at least part of the funding frequently comes through Navy channels (here, here and here for example).

That should be no surprise, given the Navy’s track record of pushing the envelope on future fuels from wind to coal and on to petroleum and nuclear energy within the span of a century. Now that the Navy has begun a transition to hybrid and all-electric ships, the need for a more nimble and logistically efficient energy system is imperative for seagoing operations.

US military tests solar powered vest.

MAPS vest by Elliot Fabrizio courtesy of US Navy.

That goes double for the Marine Corps, in which a typical 96-hour patrol can involve a burden of up to 60 pounds of battery and water supply along with an increasing load of electricity-dependent gear including radios, night goggles, GPS, and even laptops. The batteries alone can weight up to 20 pounds.

Portable Solar Power

The first time we touched base with a US Marines portable solar power initiative, they were testing out a portable solar power array the size of a large suitcase.

The vest is a far more complicated endeavor that takes portability up to the wearability level. Called MAPS for Marine Austere Patrolling System, it includes a water purifier as well as a solar panel.

The MAPS solar panel was developed through the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). About the size of a sheet of paper, it is an advanced multi-junction solar cell that gets about a 30 percent conversion efficiency rate.

That’s about 22 percent more efficient than the typical solar cell currently used by the military, but NRL is not stopping there. The lab is looking to break the global 44 percent efficiency record by getting up to 50 percent or more.

Even at 30 percent, the solar panel is already proving its superiority to a portable energy system based only on conventional batteries. In an extended field test last week, the MAPS solar panel continued to power the test team’s radios while the control teams went dark.

A Solar Powered Vest That Talks To Itself

The solar panel is the key feature of the vest, but it’s far from the only one. Pulling it all together is a the VPM-402 (for vest power management system) that enables a Marine to connect multiple devices to the same flat-form, ergonomically designed battery.

VPM automatically adjusts to the voltage requirements of each device, but the most interesting feature is its ability to communicate between the stored energy of other connected devices, as well as communicating with solar energy.

These “electrical conversations” provide seamless energy transfer from one device to another, as explained by project leader and electrical engineer Eric South:

In some cases, they may have a dead radio, but a fully charged GPS. The MAPS system will enable Marines to power the dead radio from the GPS…You can plug in nearly any energy source between 4 and 34 [volts direct current] and any energy load commonly worn or carried by dismounted combatants. Whatever you want to take power from or put power into, the power manager automatically recognized what’s plugged in and sets itself to do the electrical conversations.

The MAPS battery can also be recharged from conventional power sources including both civilian and military vehicles.

The US Marines And Renewable Energy

If that’s beginning to sound like a portable microgrid supported by renewable energy, you may be on to something. We’ve been taking note of the military’s ballooning interest in vehicle-to grid and microgrid systems supported by renewable energy at military bases (the new SPIDERS microgrid being one example), and a wearable microgrid is of a piece with that transition.

The idea is to develop a more resilient, secure, and reliable system by combining advanced energy storage systems with on site or hyperlocal energy sources, primarily solar as well as wind, geothermal, biogas, and biofuel.

The Marines in particular have a historical interest in lightweight, portable microgrids, as part of the “Lighten the Load” initiative described by David Smalley of the Office of Naval Research:

Marking a return to its high-mobility, high-tempo expeditionary roots, the Marine Corps is focused on the need to “Lighten the Load” for the warfighter…The Corps-wide vision goes beyond just physical weight reduction for weapons or other platforms. The goal is to help the individual Marine, and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force as a whole, to out-think, out-maneuver and out-perform the enemy.

Not for nothing, but the party of “Support Our Troops” might want to pause in its anti-science/making-fun-of-foundational-research shenanigans to consider that the burden of relying on outdated fuel and outdated technology falls squarely on the shoulders of the people they profess to care about.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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