August 10, 2010      

LaserMotive is pioneering the use of laser power beaming systems, a technology that has the potential for use in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other types of applications. The privately held company, based in Kent, Wash., took top honors at NASA’s 2009 Power Beaming Challenge competition and is poised to release its first prototype device.

Until recently, laser power beaming-the wireless transfer of energy from one location to another using laser light-was relegated to the realm of science fiction. But a recent spate of advances in commercial laser technology has made laser power beaming commercially viable from both a technical and cost perspective.

LaserMotive’s forthcoming prototype can power a UAV, and also has the potential to transmit power to emergency field hospitals in disaster areas. With its upcoming release, LaserMotive will be first to market in this rapidly emerging field. According to the company, it will have an operational prototype of an aerial laser for UAVs by year’s end. The initial power beaming offering has an immediate practical application for military purposes. The laser system can beam power to small UAVs and effectively keep them airborne “until the motor runs out,” according to Tom Nugent, LaserMotive president and co-founder.

LaserMotive co-founders, Nugent and physicist Jordin Kare, along with nine others, invested their own monies and leveraged the $900,000 award they received for winning the power beaming competition to aggressively fuel product development. For his part, Nugent left a “really cool job” at Intellectual Ventures where he worked on the Photonic Fence project-aka the “skeeterzapper”-to found LaserMotive in 2006. And Kare is an acclaimed physicist and aerospace engineer who specializes in laser propulsion. His credentials are top-notch: He has worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and on the Clementine lunar mapping mission. Both men have a lifelong love of space exploration, infused with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

In addition to powering UAVs for military applications, Nugent envisions other immediate, practical applications for LaserMotive’s power beaming technology. These include:

  • Disaster Relief. The laser signal can be used to power emergency field hospitals and communications in the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, fires, and tornadoes.
  • Power. Power beaming can provide energy to remote communities located in a valley or gorge where it is difficult to run power lines.
  • Temporary Military Bases. The military can use power beaming technology to energize forward or temporary bases of operations. The technology would be an inexpensive and flexible alternative to laying electrical lines or shipping fuel for generators.
  • Space Applications. Power beaming can be used to launch rockets and transmit solar energy from space to Earth.

At present, LaserMotive’s lasers can deliver a kilowatt of power, providing they have a clear line of sight. The technology is limited by weather conditions, however. For example, the laser cannot cut through fog, clouds, or smoke. Nor can it transmit in severe weather conditions, such as during a hurricane. According to LaserMotive officials, if you can see through binoculars or a telescope, you can use the laser to beam power. They also note that the technology can operate in light rain, though with some loss of efficiency.

One of the most notable features of the upcoming LaserMotive laser power beaming devices is distance. LaserMotive is virtually alone when discussing the beaming of kilowatts of power over several kilometers. Currently, most laser beaming research is focused on using radio frequency (RF) over short distances for consumer applications. LaserMotive has successfully demonstrated its ability to power devices at distances of up to 1 kilometer (two-thirds of a mile). The company hopes to extend this range to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

According to Nugent, the LaserMotive technologies are competing against batteries and power delivered over wires. Laser power beaming eliminates the need to run copper wires and is more environmentally friendly. Power beaming also has many advantages over battery-powered solutions, particularly for use in unmanned aerial vehicles. A traditional battery-operated UAV can remain aloft for 30 to 60 minutes. However, it requires a large, often weighty, battery pack. As a result, UAV operators must choose between the mission’s payload-cameras or sensors-and the system’s battery pack.

UAV Market Outlook
For LaserMotive, the timing of the UAV prototype solution could not have come at a better time. According to the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va.-based analyst firm that tracks the aerospace industry, spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will reach $11.5 billion annually over the next decade, up from the current yearly spending total of $4.9 billion. In a related report published in May 2010, the Teal Group noted that the UAV sector is a particularly fast-growing arena and “ranks high on the most active areas for acquisitions by defense companies.”

LaserMotive Targets New Investors
For the NASA Power Beaming Challenge competition, LaserMotive successfully convinced corporate sponsors and partners to donate equipment and monies. Sponsors included aviation giant Boeing, National Instruments, 4D Optical, DILAS, In-Tec, M.S. Kennedy, and Zaber Technologies. In the months following the competition, several of LaserMotive’s sponsors have evolved into full partners and are working with the company on joint proposals for a number of projects.

Other than the $900,000 prize money, LaserMotive has been self-funded. According to Nugent, the company is getting ready to look for outside investment. He is quick to note that LaserMotive is not seeking a great deal of money, and the principals are not interested in selling the company.

Positioned for Market Leadership
LaserMotive is well positioned to be a market leader and take advantage of the growth in the rapidly burgeoning UAV field. The company has both the technology expertise and marketing savvy to realize its goal of becoming a viable alternative to traditional battery-powered solutions for UAVs, as well as supplying power to areas that have lost their energy infrastructure in the wake of a natural disaster, to specific military operations, or to remote or isolated locations.

Based on the growing number of high-level sponsors such as Boeing and In-Tec, it is clear that the high-technology and aviation industries understand the potential of the LaserMotive power beaming technology, and are willing to put skin in the game by providing equipment and possibly funding.

LaserMotive’s principals recognize the need for outside funding and strong partnerships at this critical business juncture, and they are actively seeking support. Meanwhile, the company has exhibited an excellent grasp of the power of marketing by pursuing the UAV prototype-a high-visibility effort, which, if successful, will create a substantial amount of “buzz” in the UAV marketplace. This is a sound strategy that should attract outside investors and additional partners.

The Bottom Line

  • LaserMotive is pioneering the practical application of its power beaming technology, and is targeting the rapidly expanding market for unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • LaserMotive is plowing the $900,000 it received for taking top honors in the prestigious NASA Power Beaming Challenge competition in 2009 into research and development, and capitalizing on the visibility it gained after winning to attract new corporate sponsorships, partners, and investors.
  • LaserMotive’s forthcoming laser power beaming device is an alternative to battery-powered UAVs, which have limited operational times.
  • Power beaming technology can supply constant wattage to UAVs, allowing them to stay airborne for long periods of time.
  • LaserMotive has successfully demonstrated its laser power beaming technology at distances of up to 1 kilometer (two-thirds of a mile), and hopes to extend the range of its laser power beaming capabilities to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).
  • Laser power beaming is an efficient solution for delivering electricity to remote or isolated areas.
  • Laser power beaming is environmentally friendly—there is no need to cut down trees or dig up the earth to lay copper cable.