Army Funds $8M Research Project with University of Illinois for Autonomous Charging System for Drones

The Army Research Laboratory’s Combat Capabilities Development Command has funded a four-year, $8 million research project with The University of Illinois Chicago to build an autonomous charging system that can support swarms of drones. The research is slated to begin this fall.

The system would enable small drones to determine the location of the closest charging station, travel there, and then be charged before returning to their mission. The drones would use algorithms to determine the best route to a charging port. The charging stations would remove the need for soldiers to carry thousands of batteries on missions – a logistically impossible task – and would also mean that batteries would not need to be changed manually.

“Imagine in the future, the Army deploying a swarm of hundreds or thousands of unmanned aerial systems,” Dr. Mike Kweon, program manager for the Army Research Laboratory’s Versatile Tactical Power and Propulsion Essential Research Program, said. “Each of these systems has only roughly 26 minutes with the current battery technologies to conduct a flight mission and return to their home before they lose battery power, which means all of them could conceivably return at the same time to have their batteries replaced.”

Army-funded researchers are also working on mini fuel-level sensors for larger drones that would direct them to return to base to refuel or recharge when required.

“This research is critical not only for air vehicles but also ground vehicles, especially for the Army missions,” Kweon said. “The fuel sensor is telling the operator what type of fuel is being delivered from the fuel tank to the engine. This input signal can be used to intelligently tell the engine to adjust engine control parameters according to the fuel type to avoid any failures. This data can also be used to find root-cause failures if any engine component prematurely failed.”