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U.S. Military Saving Lives with Solar and Other Renewable Energy Sources

Jul 24, 2013

Credit. CERDEC Credit. CERDEC

Between 2003 and 2007 more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in one specific way: Their vehicles needed fuel, and they needed to make a trip to a fuel site to get more.

A "fuel run," as its called, is a simple-sounding duty. With so many of the other dangers in the theater of war, it may not sound like a high-risk endeavor.

But it is, and it became a problem the military was determined to solve. All armed forces have been pushing hard to implement renewable energy for the past several years. Recently the push toward solar power usage in the field has increased, and the many research and development labs devoted to solving problems that soldiers face in the energy field have come up with several innovative new solutions.

"You have a domain where you have soldiers carrying battery-powered stuff, and the longer they can stay on patrol, the more effective the can be," said Col. Paul Roege, the former director of operational energy office at Army G-4, and now a power and technology consultant.

One of the major initiatives the military's research centers have come up with is called  SWIPES (Soldier Worn Integrated Power Equipment System). SWIPES is a soldier networking system contained in a vest. Inside the vest are pockets to hold all a soldier's equipment, including a radio, a GPS, a flashlight, and more. The vest also contains a rechargeable battery.

As the soldier wears the vest, all of his or her equipment can be recharged. SWIPES also contains a "soldier power manager," which is a tiny hand-held device that can charge battery-powered equipment, and a solar blanket, which a soldier can lay out and charge all of his equipment in a matter of a few hours.

A look at the solar panels involved in the REPPS system, developed by the U.S. military to aid fuel efforts. Credit: CERDEC A look at the solar panels involved in the REPPS system, developed by the U.S. military to aid fuel efforts. Credit: CERDEC

"SWIPES is saving lives," Roege said. "Patrols can now go longer, and they will be less compromised. When we first tested it out in 2011, the feedback we got from soldiers was extraordinarily positive."

SWIPES isn't the only new life-saving energy device developed at CERDEC (Communications-Electronics Research, Development, and Engineering Center). Steve Slane, chief of the center's Power Generation and Alternative Energy Branch, spoke about the REPPS (Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System) kit.

The REPPS contains a solar panel with a lithium-ion battery charger, and it can charge multiple common battery types. It comes in a camouflage rucksack, with a solar blanket that's 3.5 ft by 2.5 ft. "We still hear that fatalities during fuel runs and water runs are a big problem," Slane said. "So if a soldier has something like REPPS and it can allow him to use less fuel and have less need for power. It's a way to make his life a little easier and safer."

In conjunction with the REPPS kit, CERDEC has also developed a RENEWS system as well. The RENEWS (Reusing Existing Natural Energy, Wind, and Solar) system is larger than REPPS, and is intended to produce up to 300 watts of energy field usage in silent, remote operations where the supply of power and fuel resupply is the most difficult or risky.

RENEWS consists of a wind turbine, three 124-watt flexible solar panels, a power conditioner, an AC inverter, and a battery storage/charging unit that contains six BB-2590 rechargeable batteries. It can be hooked into either the solar panels or the wind turbine for continuous charging.

The Firefly system is another new innovation that has come out of the U.S. Dept. of Defense, the Army, and specifically AMRDEC (Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center).

Firefly integrates and deploys wind and solar harvesting systems to provide continuous energy to company-level, force protection systems used by U.S. Army combat units. The system was first deployed in 2012. Its best feature is the Hostile Fire Detection Sensor, which is a portable surveillance system that can be carried in a backpack, or placed on the ground at operating bases. The system provides 360-degree detection and location of enemy shooters, using a combination of acoustics and short wave infrared detectors.

A photo of the RENEWS system developed to help save soldiers' lives. Credit: CERDEC A photo of the RENEWS system developed to help save soldiers' lives. Credit: CERDEC

"The difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound will give you the origin of the shooting point the enemy is originating from," said Tim Edwards, the current operations-special projects manager for AMRDEC. "And using Firefly to look at the shape of the signature, you can tell fairly well what the other combatant is shooting with."

In 0.25 seconds, the system makes its calculations and produces the information on where the enemy is and the transmits it to the soldier, Edwards said.

At a cost of $25,000 to $30,000 per unit, Firefly was an impressive addition to the theater of war. Initially, it was dependent on batteries, and when soldiers in Afghanistan had to get out of their vehicle or go above a wall line to change the battery, it was extremely dangerous.

Modifications to the system came in the form of solar panels. The second version has reduced the power consumption necessary, and with a single solar panel, the batteries needed for Firefly can be recharged for 4 to 5 days. The panel is also "roll-able" and capable of being folded up easily.

Edwards said Firefly is only being used by one unit in Afghanistan, but he expects four more to be deployed this year.

While the folks at AMRDEC and CERDEC have been working on the Firefly, SWIPES and other breakthroughs, military researchers in Detroit have been developing more fuel-efficient military vehicles and also trying to solve the dangers soldiers face during repeated fuel runs.

The military uses 90 percent of all energy consumed by the federal government, which accounts for 2 percent of all U.S. energy consumption. In the GSPEL (Ground Systems Power and Energy Lab) facility, which opened in 2012, researchers have been tackling the energy issue that results from such large-scale energy consumption.

As we reported on in 2012, GSPEL now has fuel cell reformer technology that allows the military to fill up tanks and planes from the same supply. GSPEL has also been working on building an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a method of creating energy without using the main engine of a vehicle. The APU also provides silent power for electronics when a tank is in a position of surveillance.

Another project that Slane of CERDEC spoke about was a tactical renewable system trailer. Think of it as something that can be deployed before fuel storage shows up, and can be moved and used quickly. It adds larger quantities of solar, "getting into the kilowatt range of power," Slane said.

"Energy is always going to be a problem to deliver," Roege said. "To get great operational capabilities, you're always going to be energy-driven. We are becoming more and more effective at delivering energy, and we can still improve a lot."