Electric Sky wins DARPA grant to work on focused power beaming system for drones

A startup called Electric Sky says it’s begun building its first Whisper Beam transmitter for providing tightly focused wireless power to drones in flight, thanks to a $225,000 award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Electric Sky will use the six-month Phase I award, granted through DARPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, to explore ways to adapt its wireless architecture to power a swarm of drones.

The first phase of the project calls for building and testing a lab-bench demonstration system that would operate at short distances. Those experiments are expected to supply data that can be used to upgrade the system for higher power and longer distances.

Electric Sky has offices in the Seattle area as well as in Midland, Texas. Its CEO is Robert Millman, who previously served as general counsel for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Former XCOR Aerospace CEO Jeff Greason is the company’s co-founder, chief technologist and the inventor of the Whisper Beam system.

The company’s mission is to pioneer novel electric power and propulsion technologies for aircraft and flight vehicles of all sizes.

Electric Sky isn’t the only venture focusing on wireless power for drones. Seattle-based PowerLight Technologies, for instance, is working on a laser-based system that could power up unpiloted aerial vehicles as well as 5G base stations. But Electric Sky’s proprietary technology takes a different approach.

Laser and microwave beams typically start out strong but get weaker as they travel outward. In contrast, Whisper Beam’s transmissions start out weak but get stronger near the receiver.

“Whisper Beam technology is the electromagnetic equivalent of a whispering gallery,” Millman said in a news release. “In a whispering gallery a single listener across the room can hear the speaker but no one else can, not even people standing directly between the speaker and listener. The sound is too weak for them to hear.”

The radio waves sent out by Electric Sky’s transmitter self-focus at the receiver, enabling the drone to draw kilowatts of power in any kind of weather.

“It’s a myth that long-distance power transmission is impossible,” Greason said. “It’s just never been economical. This new method reduces the cost of the ground transmitter and the size of the vehicle’s onboard receiver.”

Greason said the beaming system could be used with any type of electric aircraft.

“Whisper Beam technology is particularly helpful in the power-hungry phases of takeoff and climb, enabling vehicle designers to meet other requirements to extend range, enhance flight safety, reduce peak loads on batteries, and shorten ground turnaround times,” he said.

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