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The Pentagon's push for wearable power

The Defense Department wants a few good inventors to devise a prototype system that can power a standard soldier's equipment for 96 hours.

When I served in the U.S. Army back in the waning days of the Cold War, about the only battery-operated equipment I needed to worry about taking into the field was the standard-issue L-shaped flashlight, the one with the red lens we needed to swap in to reduce the risk of (a) night blindness and (b) giving away our position to the bad guys.

Future Combat Systems gear in action
These soldiers are part of a combat team evaluating Future Combat Systems gear in an exercise in February at Fort Bliss, Texas. Maj. Deanna Bague/U.S. Army

Things are a lot different now. While the Army is still a long ways off from its Land Warrior, Future Combat Systems and related "every soldier a sensor" goals, today's GIs pack a lot of electronic gear, from GPS receivers to night vision goggles. (An article in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy reports that in a five-day mission the average U.S. soldier goes through 88 AA batteries.)

With demands like those in mind, the Department of Defense last week announced a "wearable power" competition. The objective: a prototype system that can power a standard soldier's equipment for 96 hours. It also has to pack less than half the weight of the current batteries carried--all of the components, including the power generator, electrical storage, control electronics, connectors and fuel, must weigh 4 kilograms or less, the Defense Department says.

A competition is scheduled for the fall of 2008. At that time, the top three competitors will have to demonstrate the use of a complete, wearable system that produces an average of 20 watts of power for the four-day period, under realistic conditions.

How badly does the Pentagon want to find a solution to the problem? The winner will get a $1 million prize, and the second- and third-places finishers will get $500,000 and $250,000, respectively.

Potential entrants will be briefed on the rules and the technical details at a public forum in September of this year in the Washington, D.C., area. Registration for the prize program must be completed by November 30, 2007.