Radar and laser breakthroughs serve humanitarian ends

After disasters, damaged water and power infrastructure can turn a localized crisis into a national catastrophe. “When typhoons and earthquakes cause utility infrastructure to collapse, such events turn into large disasters,” says Kasmi. “And downed power systems hamper recovery efforts, when light sources for nighttime rescue operations are extinguished or essential facilities like hospitals and telecommunications systems shut down.”

Power beaming, the delivery of energy as wireless beams through aerial platforms, can make a significant difference to the ability of first responders to find and rescue survivors in an emergency. Power beaming can help to get energy systems up and running long before damaged utility infrastructure can be fixed. 

“While innovations such as solar-powered communications tools help, the prospect of having portable, pop-up energy installations that can either power generators or plug into functional grid infrastructure would transform humanitarian recovery,” explains Kasmi. 

Beaming power via laser

Defined as the point-to-point transfer of electrical energy by a directed electromagnetic beam, power beaming can be done via laser or microwave. While microwave-based approaches have a longer track record, laser-based approaches are showing promise in recent trials and demonstrations. Laser-based power beaming offers an advantage in being more narrowly concentrated, enabling smaller transmission and receiver installations. 

Laser beaming takes electricity from a readily available source, converts it into light using lasers, and projects it through open air—also known as “free space”—or through optical fiber. At the receiving end, specialized solar cells matching the lasers’ wavelength convert that intense light back into electricity. 

“Power beaming is potentially poised to help solve challenges such as provision of internet and connectivity for those in remote areas, without traditionally built-up power grids or infrastructure,” says Kasmi, explaining why the technology is a focus for DERC. “It could significantly boost post-disaster humanitarian aid, as the world braces for more frequent extreme weather events.” 

There is no shortage of need, as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events and temperatures. In September 2022, Hurricane Ian swept through the southeastern U.S., leaving 5.1 million homes and businesses without power, some for five days or more. During Pakistan’s monsoon floods in the summer, authorities scrambled to protect power stations and the electrical grid. In September 2022, Typhoon Noru in the Philippines left millions without electricity. Even localized hazards can pose grave damage to energy systems, such as the severe icing in Slovenia in 2014, which left 250,000 people without power for as long as 10 days, due to damage to utility infrastructure.

There are still technical obstacles to overcome for power beaming, says Kasmi, such as finding ways to support longer-distance transmission and improving efficiency. And a proactive public education campaign is needed to assuage fears or unfounded health worries around laser technology. Nevertheless, power beaming has the potential to be a powerful new capability to support human populations in a century braced for more extreme natural disasters.

While improvements in directed-energy technology often come under the spotlight in sectors ranging from autonomous vehicle navigation to powering low-orbit satellites, their humanitarian applications could prove the most transformative. Ground-penetrating radar and laser-based power beaming are just two examples of the use of directed energy to aid in humanitarian preparedness, response, and recovery, with the potential to improve the safety, health, and lives of millions worldwide.

This article was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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