As technology redefines warfare and the U.S. troops evolve into a computerized militia, equipment portability becomes a life-and-death issue. Every extra ounce and every minute of device uptime counts in the combat zone. Powering handhelds without using batteries would be one way to lighten the soldier's pack. For today's foot soldiers, batteries make up nearly 10 pounds of an overall weight budget of between 80 and 100 pounds for all gear, says Prasanna Mulgaonkar, director for networking and communications at nonprofit research institute SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. "In the future, there will be multiple and increasing demands on power -- more electronics -- and a strong requirement to increase the operational demands from 24 hours to a week without replenishment."
To that end, scientists at SRI have been working on artificial muscle transducers -- actuators comprised of inexpensive, easily-produced elastomeric polymer materials. These polymer films expand or contract in response to applied electric fields or mechanical stresses. Actuators are already on the consumer market -- they're the technology that makes your kid's tennis shoes light up as she runs.
"Think about it as plastic muscles," says Mulgaonkar. "It's fundamentally layers of rubbery materials processed such that when you put an electric charge to them, they change shape and size because of that external mechanical input." This change transforms mechanical energy to electrical energy.
With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a team of SRI scientists have developed the heel-strike program, configuring these polymer materials to fit in a boot heel and generate power as soldiers walk. This power then would be cabled from the boot to portable devices.
Mulgaonkar sees great potential for actuators in robotics. "This opens up a new class of robots that could fly, snake around, have terrain difficulty awareness, (and) be lightweight enough to carry around in backpacks and insert into hard-to-reach terrain." -- InfoWorld (US)
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