Radar and laser breakthroughs serve humanitarian purposes
After disasters, damaged water and electricity infrastructure can turn a localized crisis into a national disaster. “When typhoons and earthquakes cause utility infrastructure to collapse, these events turn into big disasters,” says Kasmi. “And downed electrical systems hamper recovery efforts, when light sources for nighttime rescue operations are turned off or critical facilities like hospitals and telecommunications systems are shut down.”
Electric beam, the delivery of power in the form of wireless beams through aerial platforms, can make a significant difference in the ability of first responders to find and rescue survivors in an emergency. The electrical harness can help keep energy systems running long before damaged utility infrastructure can be repaired.
“While innovations such as solar-powered communication tools are helpful, the prospect of having portable, ephemeral energy installations that can power generators or plug into functioning grid infrastructure would transform humanitarian recovery,” says Kasmi.
Laser radiation power
Defined as the point-to-point transfer of electrical energy by a directed electromagnetic beam, the power beam can be laser or microwave. While microwave-based approaches have a longer track record, laser-based approaches show promise in recent trials and demonstrations. The laser-based power beam offers the advantage of being more tightly focused, allowing for smaller transmitting and receiving installations.
Laser radiation takes electricity from a readily available source, converts it into light using lasers, and projects it into the open air – also called “free space” – or through fiber optics. At the receiving end, specialized solar cells matching the wavelength of the lasers convert this intense light into electricity.
“The Power Harness is potentially poised to help solve problems such as internet provision and connectivity for people living in remote areas without traditionally built power grids and infrastructure,” Kasmi says, explaining why the technology is at the center of DERC’s concerns. “This could significantly increase post-disaster humanitarian assistance, as the world prepares for more frequent extreme weather events.”
The needs are not lacking, as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events and temperatures. In September 2022, Hurricane Ian swept through the southeastern United States, leaving 5.1 million homes and businesses without power, some for five days or more. During the monsoon floods in Pakistan in the summer, authorities scrambled to protect power plants and the power grid. In September 2022, Typhoon Noru in the Philippines left millions without power. Even localized hazards can cause serious damage to energy systems, such as the severe frost in Slovenia in 2014, which left 250,000 people without power for 10 days, due to damage to utility infrastructure.
There are still technical hurdles to overcome for the power beam, Kasmi says, such as finding ways to support longer distance transmission and improve efficiency. And a proactive public education campaign is needed to allay unfounded fears or health concerns around laser technology. Nonetheless, power transmission has the potential to be a powerful new capability to sustain human populations in a century prepared for more extreme natural disasters.
While improvements in directed-energy technology are often in the spotlight in areas ranging from navigating autonomous vehicles to powering low-orbit satellites, their humanitarian applications could prove the most transformative. Ground penetrating radar and laser radiation are just two examples of the use of directed energy to assist in humanitarian preparedness, response and recovery, with the potential to improve safety, health and the lives of millions of people around the world.
This article was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not authored by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.