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After the Challenge: LaserMotive
LaserMotive development laser transmitter LaserMotive's development laser transmitter features two 2.25 kilowatt laser beams going through the optics and being combined on a gimbaled steering mirror. (LaserMotive)
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The LaserMotive laser receiver is visible mounted under the wing of the Lockheed Martin Stalker unmanned aircraft during laser powered test flights in the summer of 2012. LaserMotive's laser receiver is visible mounted under the wing of Lockheed Martin's Stalker unmanned aircraft during laser-powered test flights in the summer of 2012. (LaserMotive)
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Who they are: LaserMotive is a Seattle-based company developing wireless power delivery systems using laser beams to transmit electricity. The company was founded to compete in the 2007 and 2009 Power Beaming Challenges. It is currently partnered with NASA to design architecture that would allow the use of lasers to launch rockets and power satellites. It is also developing and testing wireless power transmission technology to power unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Challenges: 2007 and 2009 Power Beaming Challenges

Competition stats: LaserMotive competed in the 2007 Power Beaming challenge, which yielded no winner. Its team competed in the 2009 challenge, winning the level one, first-place prize of $900,000 for successfully powering a robotic climber to the top of a cable. Its team was the only one to reach the top, and had the fastest climbing speed.

For more information: http://www.lasermotive.com, @LaserMotive on Twitter

In June 2012, LaserMotive made headlines after powering Lockheed Martin’s Stalker Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) quadcopter for more than 48 hours, increasing its flight duration by 2,400 percent. This record-setting achievement demonstrated the advancements that have been made in wireless power beaming since the 2009 Centennial Challenges Power Beaming Challenge. We caught up with LaserMotive CEO Tom Nugent to see what the company has been up to.

Centennial Challenges: LaserMotive just made a pretty significant step in power beaming with the Stalker UAS flight. What does this mean for power beaming as an industry?

Tom Nugent: Transmitting power wirelessly using a laser is an idea that’s been around for a long time, but people still need to see it applied in the real world before they can truly see using it in their own projects. Demonstrating wireless power transmission with lasers to a UAV is a huge milestone because customers can see the real application -- that it works out in the field.

CC: What does it mean for LaserMotive from a business perspective?

TN: For us, it marks a turning point in the company, because after the Centennial Challenges competition, we were looking to demonstrate this technology on UAVs to get people to start considering it for commercial vehicles. It has transitioned from demonstration to commercial product.

CC: How far off is practical -- widespread or commercial -- application of this technology?

TN: With adequate funding, I’d say just over a year. UAVs will likely be used for disaster relief, to bring in power quickly to devastated areas or to power cell phone towers in remote locations, or for security surveillance. We are also looking at other applications for a variety of ranges. UAVs are a stepping stone to other markets.

CC: What about the safety issues of using lasers?

TN: Part of what we’re doing is developing technology to make them safe for people to work around. We’re working at intensities where it's not a significant skin hazard,– the safety system is to eliminate the eye hazard.

CC: What does the LaserMotive team look like today?

TN: We have about five full-time equivalents, and are expecting to move to larger facilities soon. During the competition, everyone on the team was working in their spare time on nights and weekends to get it done. Now, some of us are full-time, and we're hoping to hire more people soon.

CC: How has LaserMotive’s experience with Centennial Challenges impacted the development of the company?

TN: The challenge really enabled us to kick start the company and bring on our first full-time hires. It has always served as one of the landmarks that we point to when people ask how realistic our technology is. It is real enough that we were able to both demonstrate it and win.

CC: LaserMotive is working with NASA to create the architecture to use lasers to launch rockets and power satellites. What sort of architecture is being fabricated?

TN: Traditionally, rocket launchers use solid or liquid fuel that is oxidized, or burned, to create a hot gas. The expansion of the gas creates thrust. Laser thermal rockets work by instead using lasers to heat a solid heat exchanger, which heats a propellant source to convert it to hot gas. Because you don’t need to burn a fuel, your propellant can be inert, and the rocket can be much safer. The performance can also be much better than traditional rockets, enabling single stage to orbit launch. We envision a laser transmitter facility with infrastructure that would be located at one site and be on the same size and power scale as a large data center. Then you could launch small rockets frequently to deliver components to orbital stations or fuel to a propellant depot.

CC: What other projects is LaserMotive working on?

TN: We are continuing test flights with UAVs, and also developing a "tethered tower" that can send laser power through a fiber optic cable to a flying platform. Our system takes a small helicopter and powers it with lasers over the cable, which eliminates safety concerns and allows bigger payloads at higher altitudes than wires.

CC: What are some of LaserMotive’s long-term goals?

TN: We want to be able to say that we successfully grew the capabilities of wireless power transmission via laser to enable longer endurance and higher power, for all markets, from UAVs to providing power to remote bases to launching rockets.

CC: How do you think challenge competitions affect the state of the industry?

TN: Competitions in general are an awesome idea. When they are done right, they can dramatically advance the state of the industry.