The United States Air Force is looking to the University of Missouri-Rolla for a revolutionary way to power everything from unmanned aerial vehicles to terrestrial robots.
During a recent visit to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, a UMR research team was informed that they have won the Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate (AFRL/MN) nationwide “Campus Challenge II” competition to develop ideas for such a technology. Last year, UMR learned it was one of two finalists chosen to prepare a technology roadmap for the AFRL/MN. The other finalist was the California Institute of Technology.
UMR’s development plan was judged to be the best in the competition, and now, with the official backing of the AFRL/MN, the UMR team will move ahead with plans for further research.
Dr. Fatih Dogan, a professor of materials science and engineering at UMR, is leading the Rolla-based effort. He says the Munitions Directorate, which is developing systems with electrical requirements that can exceed the capabilities of known power sources, is looking for a new source of compact power to replace conventional energy systems like batteries.
“The roadmap describes how to apply nano-scale science and engineering expertise along with lessons learned from Mother Nature to create revolutionary new approaches for the development of long-duration power systems with high energy capacity,” Dogan says.
Because of the military implications, a lot of the technical details aren’t available to the public. But Dogan says the new bio-inspired energy sources, which will be compact, lightweight and extremely long-lasting, are expected to be used to power unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous terrestrial micro-robots, artificial intelligence systems and other military devices.
"With respect to developing highly efficient and compact power sources, we can learn lessons from nature," Dogan says. "Some examples are the highly efficient flight muscles of birds or insects, or electric fish that can send pulses for navigation or for generating a strong shock to stun prey."
As is the case with most military innovations that begin with a long-term vision, Dogan says the technology should eventually trickle down to the public for conventional usage in devices like laptop computers and cell phones.
The five UMR researchers involved are Dogan, Dr. Keith Corzine, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Dr. Melanie Mormile, associate professor of biological sciences; Dr. Matt O’Keefe, professor of materials science and engineering; and Dr. Jay Switzer, the Donald L. Castleman/Foundation for Chemical Research Missouri Professor of Discovery in Chemistry. Dr. Mariesa Crow, dean of the UMR School of Materials, Energy and Earth Resources, accompanied them on the trip to Florida to receive the Air Force award.
The University of Missouri-Columbia, St. Louis University and Battelle are also lending some expertise to the UMR effort.