Packet Digital's technology could change UAS perceptions

By Patrick C. Miller | January 28, 2015

How the industry thinks about uses for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could change dramatically by making them more energy efficient.

Terri Zimmerman, CEO of Packet Digital, believes that by doubling the flight time of UAS or possibly making a solar-powered UAS’s time aloft nearly unlimited, the potential applications become much greater.

“There are a lot of ways that people could use UAS if the flight time wasn’t so limited,” she explained. “Our perception of how they’re used is dictated by their capability today. If you change the capability of the UAS, then you’ve changed the potential for the kind of applications it could be used in.”

Packet Digital is working on a project with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., aimed at helping the Navy increase the flight time of a solar-powered UAS through more efficient energy use. The company is using its expertise in designing and building integrated power management circuits to operate with the advanced photovoltaic cells developed by NRL.

Packet Digital’s patented technology is based on algorithms embedded in chips that manage electricity, supplying just the right amount of power at the exact time a hardware component needs it. This not only greatly improves energy efficiency, but also reduces heat generated by electrical components.

For the Navy’s aircraft, the challenge is making adjustments in relation to a dynamically changing situation, such as turns, clouds temporarily blocking the sun and storing electricity in batteries that enable the aircraft to continue flying at night.

“We’re designing all the power management circuitry to efficiently convert the photovoltaic output into useable power for the motor and all the electronics onboard,” said Andrew Paulsen, Packet Digital’s director of advanced technologies. “For these high-efficiency photovoltaic cells, you have to be very precise. You need to adjust the settings quickly several times per second or up to tens of times per second.”

With a ground-based application, the power management technology might need to make adjustments only once or twice a minute. Paulsen said Packet Digital’s photovoltaic interface offers a highly efficient, extremely precise, fast-tracking solution in a lightweight, compact package ideal for UAS applications.

“We’re working on a high-density, high-energy efficiency battery pack with our electronics onboard to allow smart charging, cell monitoring and balancing,” Paulsen said. “We’re also creating a power manager that connects the output of our converter to the motor and other electronics.”

While the research is being conducted for the U.S. Department of Defense, Zimmerman said Packet Digital is interested in pursuing commercial UAS applications for its technology.

“There are a couple North Dakota companies that have expressed interest in manufacturing a UAV and might be interested in purchasing our power management system to go with it. We’re exploring strategic options here and outside the state as well,” she said.

The first phase of the three-phase, two year project began in fall 2014. The North Dakota Industrial Commission provided Packet Digital with a $500,000 grant through the state’s Renewable Energy Council. The funds were matched with $250,000 from the company and $260,000 from NRL.

“UAS is the perfect application for us,” Zimmerman noted. ”With the challenges on the power side and our expertise in power, we can bring value to the industry. In the next year or so, we’ll have a product commercialized in the UAS market that I believe will change the industry.”


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