Published Dec-21-09

Wireless power technology to remotely control vehicles on the moon. Other applications include sending power to communities after natural disasters.

LaserMotive, United States

The Story:

Otis NASA continues its bold exploration of space, but it’s not doing it alone. Increasingly the space agency is turning to open innovation competitions to help it develop the technologies it will need to explore our immediate planetary neighbors and beyond. NASA’s Centennial Challenges are a series of programs for individual inventors, student groups and companies to help the space agency conquer technical challenges to benefit future missions.

Power Beam Challenge

For a number of years NASA has been trying to find a team or individual who could meet the exacting criteria it has set for the Power Beam Challenge; a competition to develop wireless power technology that could be applied to a wide range of applications including lunar rovers and space propulsion systems.

Of particular interest to NASA at the moment is the need to remotely control vehicles and instruments on the moon. The technology could also have more immediate applications back here on Earth such as supplying communities with power after natural disasters - just beam in electricity when the lights go out. There might also be power beaming uses for airships, satellites and the space elevator concept.

Scaling the Heights

To win the prize purse teams had to build a mechanical climbing device capable of propelling itself to the top of a one kilometer vertical cable at a speed greater than two meters per second. The energy had to be beamed from a ground-based transmitter to a receiver on the unmanned vehicle where it would be converted into mechanical power.

The challenge competition was first held in 2005, but all teams had failed in their attempts. That was the situation until November 2009 when LaserMotive from Seattle became the first and only team to succeed. Their climber, called “Otis” (after the lift company) clocked up average speeds of 3.9 meters per second. A high-powered laser array shone an intense beam of infra-red light onto its solar cells and it zipped up the kilometer long steel cable which was dangling from a helicopter in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Three-Day Competition

Three teams took part in the open innovation contest which was held over three days. The competition was fierce and close with LaserMotive only emerging the clear winner on the last day. It took them three years to develop their robot with many members pulling 24-hour shifts.

All the teams had taken part in earlier Power Beam competitions and seasoned space industry experts noted how their technologies had improved greatly in the intervening years. The 2009 contest was far harder than previous challenges (the 2007 challenge had been conducted with a crane supporting a 100-meter high cable) which spurred on the teams to develop more sophisticated systems to meet the new criteria head on.

Space Race

Although $900,000 was handed over in prize money, this is not the end of the Power Beam competition. There is still $1.1 million left in the kitty, as NASA wants to use the open innovation route to push the technology even further. It wants to find a team or inventor who can get a robot to climb faster than 5 meters per second and is inviting anyone with good ideas to enter this space race.

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