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DARPA: Give us solar cells you can use to build stuff

Robotic 'Power Skin' would also be Power Bone™

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US military brainiacs have notified the boffinry community that they need a new miracle material called "Power Skin", which would "harvest" energy from its surroundings and also be strong enough to make robots out of.

The Power Skin notion comes of course from DARPA, the Pentagon techwar shop where they're not at home to Mister Practical; but where rooms are always kept prepared for Mister Unfeasible and his old chum Mister Cockup.

The new miracle-stuff is to be a "lightweight structural material that provides its own day and night power ... essentially a thin monolithic sheet ... to be used as an independent power source and, simultaneously, serve as the structural material to build lightweight platforms such as UAVs and other robots".

According to the Pentagon warboffins:

The objectives of the “Power Skin” concept are three-fold:

1) Day/Night energy harvesting from the environment

2) Energy storage and recharge capabilities

3) Integration of the harvesting and storing components into thin sheets and/or on a thin lightweight backing material for structural integrity

As a notional scenario, the “Power Skin” development can be framed as power material to be used in small UAVs to demonstrate continuous flight for four days. The ultimate goal is to develop a technology that will enable indefinite flight endurance.

DARPA seems to be inspired here by plans and prototypes for solar-powered UAVs, able to store enough juice during sunlight to keep flying through the hours of darkness. These have already demonstrated quite long flights, though so far mainly near the Equator and at midsummer. The agency is already seeking to build much more capable, larger versions able to stay airborne for years at a stretch, even in polar regions.

Building such aircraft would be hugely easier if their airframe structure generated and stored electric power itself, rather than needing separate solar cells and batteries. The new material would actually be functioning in the role of "Power Bone" or "Power Skeleton" as much as "Power Skin".

There would be plenty of other applications for working solar-cell/battery/structural combo material, of course. Spacecraft designers would surely find it useful: so would gadgetry or car makers - or even architects, perhaps, if it was cheap enough.

There does seem to be a slight air of "why don't they just invent a simple cheap pill which turns a tank of water into petrol" about this, though. It would obviously be great if the requested "Power Skin" miracle-stuff existed, and the fuselage of an aircraft or the bodywork of a car could be solar cells and batteries too.

But that doesn't mean it'll happen. ®

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