THE EDGE: The X-37B Space Force launch will carry a technology (like the one Scott designed, built and patented) that could eventually allow planes to stay aloft indefinitely
The X-37B Space Force Space Plane's Microwave Power Beam Experiment Is A Way Bigger Deal Than It Seems
When the X-37B launches it will carry a technology (like the one Scott designed, built and was awarded a U.S. federal patent on) that could eventually allow planes to stay aloft indefinitely anywhere on the globe.
Still, low earth orbit satellites circle the planet at incredibly high speeds and their maneuverability is limited, so there will be limitations to the Navy’s latest beamed power system, but as a proof of concept, it is essential. A constellation of satellites would likely be necessary to have a truly 24/7 supply of power, enabling UAVs to be ‘passed’ from satellite to satellite for continuous or tightly scheduled recharging. The same can be said for any receiver applications on the planet's surface.
Beamed Power And The Future of UAVs
In 2014, the superintendent of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Plasma Physics Division Thomas Mehlhorn published a paper in IEEE Transactions on Plasma Sciences which offered an overview of plasma physics and pulsed power as they relate to national security. The article spans a wide variety of topics including nuclear weapons, inertial confinement fusion, and high-energy laser weapons. In the paper, Mehlhorn also touches upon the Navy’s beamed power UAV research at the time, writing that the continuous flight times offered by beamed power systems could change surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications gateway/relay missions forever:
"Building upon the concept of scalability, rather than using a laser beam to kill a UAV, they began to pursue the idea of beaming power to a UAV to allow continuous flight, with potential application to both surveillance [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)] and countermeasure missions. The team has pursued this idea using NRL applied research funds with the vision that long-range laser power beaming to UAVs could allow for long-duration flights with reduced manpower requirements for many Navy and DoD missions, including off-board decoys, persistent surveillance, and communication relays."
According to an October 2019 Navy.mil press release, the Navy’s beamed power system has also been endorsed by the Marines, Army, and Air Force and is expected to throughout the Department of Defense in the near future. The extent to which such systems have already been tested or deployed is unclear, although the Department of Energy has explored the concept of beaming microwaves from space since at least 2014. Doing the same from the ground, within line of sight of the aircraft, which can still be dozens or even hundreds of miles away depending on the altitudes involved, is such an easier task that it would be a bit puzzling if the technology isn't already under development, or even possibly in some sort of clandestine operational state.
Doing so from another aircraft is also clearly an objective based on the existing literature and would help mitigate the line of sight limitations with ground-based power beaming stations, but would sacrifice endurance and simplicity. In the 2011 RAND study cited above, the authors write that possibilities for beamed power applications include "ultra-high-altitude observation stations or communication relays and flocks of high-altitude sensor probes powered remotely from a large aircraft 'mother ship.'"
Meanwhile, the China Academy of Space Technology claimed to already be testing such a system in 2019 and said that a fully-functional Chinese microwave beaming power station in space could be deployed by 2050.
As you can probably tell at this point, this technology has massive implications not only for the future of UAVs, but for all of mankind. Such a system could be used to keep UAVs in the air for very long periods of time to replace cell towers or communications satellites in the event of a crisis in a region or even for normal operations of increasingly complex communications networks. Unlike a tethered aerostat, these UAVs would require far less infrastructure, could be moved around at will for optimum coverage, and could land quickly for servicing. They could even deploy dozens of miles, or even further, away from their base stations. With a space-based power source, they could fly anywhere on earth. Obviously, the implications for overhead surveillance are equally impactful.
So, while the X-37B's latest mission details seem neat on a scientific level, the reality is the microwave system it is testing could change the game for many military-related applications and could actually open the door for near-continuous unmanned flight throughout the atmosphere.