Bionic knee braces and solar panels coming to U.S. soldiers in the near future

01/02/2014 - 00:00

When United States soldiers venture out on routine three-day missions in the field, they mostly pack the essentials: food, water, ammunition and 10 to 13 pounds of batteries. Modern soldiers have so many electronically-powered devices, from night vision goggles to flashlights to radios, that batteries are a vital component of their livelihood.

In fact, they have to carry so many batteries that the weight impedes mobility. The occasional demand for a resupply means more soldiers must risk their lives just to deliver batteries to other military members in need. To alleviate this problem, the army wants soldiers to sport wearable solar panels and bionic knee braces that would harness the sun and kinetic energy to recharge their devices.

"If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we're saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field," Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, told Mashable. "We're also saving lives in that there's a huge risk in bringing these convoys out to the fore field."

Harnessing bionic energy is one way to help. The idea is for a soldier to wear a knee brace that captures the energy used by the joint when he walks, according to Bionic Power CEO Yad Garcha, whose company is working with the military.

The knee brace has little to no medical value, but Garcha told Mashable it doesn't impede a soldier's mobility; if it did, the army would, at best, be wary of the technology. The brace is hooked to a power manager that recharges the 2.2-pound batteries to power soldiers' array of electronics. Wearing two at  time produces 10 to 12 watts of electricity every hour, approximately enough to charge threesmartphones, which helps supplement the 10 to 13 pounds of batteries — but not totally replace them.

"Instead of four or five [2.2 pound] batteries, they might carry two that are rechargeable," Garcha said. Another promising complement to batteries comes in the form of flexible solar panels that would be woven into a soldier's uniform to generate power and feed it to devices.

Barry Ives, director of advanced programs at wearable electronics company MC10, told Mashable his company is working with the military to design uniforms that would ideally generate an average of 18 watts of power per hour. That number would fluctuate even during the day, as soldiers are sometimes walking through shaded areas, but the panels would theoretically be a huge energy supplement.
Before soldiers suit up in solar panels, though, 

the military must ensure these new uniforms are just as camouflaged as the old ones and that they don't flash in the sunthe military must ensure these new uniforms are just as camouflaged as the old ones and that they don't flash in the sun or emit heat that might tip off enemy combatants.

Hurley isn't sure that new forms of power generation will ever totally eliminate the need for batteries, though. He hopes to use wearable solar panels and knee braces in combination with batteries to reach what he calls "net zero," a point at which these technologies provide so much energy that a second battery isn't required.

Net zero is a goal that the army will likely chase forever. As new devices are developed and old ones reinvented, the demand on a soldier's power supply will steadily increase. So the army is also looking for manufacturers to come up with more efficient sleep modes and is working on ways to give soldiers control over their energy supplies.

A smartphone app is also underway to inform soldiers of the amount of power remaining on a device and how much each is draining.

"With that, the soldier now has the situational awareness that will allow him to make decisions to further his power sources," Hurley said. "He can now throttle down or even shut off some of the devices to prolong his battery life."

In a soldier's world, longer battery life could mean saving an actual life.