ADELPHI, Md. (May 9, 2013) -- Troops in a tactical environment have unique challenges with efficient energy use that are uncommon to the rest of the fighting forces.

One is that a Soldier positioned to stand guard at an outpost, or forward operating base, should not have to think about energy -- a distraction from the strategy and Soldier protection.

In a recent panel discussion in Washington, D.C., April 10, Katherine Hammack, the Army's assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment, said that "energy is mission critical. It is vulnerability. It is a risk."

The effective use of energy increases mission capabilities, she said.

This challenge of efficient operational energy in remote, combat areas in part belongs to scientists and engineers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, who are a part of the team that manages the Smart Battlefield Energy on-Demand program, known as SmartBED.

"The real goal is more efficient use of energy at small operating posts," said Bruce Geil, power conditioning branch chief who oversees the SmartBED project. "We want to streamline the way we go about managing the energy, which is all over the map right now."

Geil's team started with the question of, "How do we give a plug-and-play simplicity to that Soldier who's tasked to put the microgrid together in the heat of battle?"

That single question birthed the SmartBED program, which along with other programs is giving engineers an idea of how the energy is used, and how it can be distributed simply and efficiently.

Part of the SmartBED effort is a highly configurable test bed that can handle multiple loads and sources; emulating battlefield conditions. The technology should get researchers as close as they can get to a real-world scenario while staying in a laboratory, said Bob Wood, an electrical engineer on the project.

"Theater is not the place to test microgrid equipment," said Wood, who has deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq. "The last thing you want is for a Soldier on the front lines to have an experimental piece of hardware that may or may not work."

The test bed allows you to prove whether equipment is ready for field testing. What is unique about SmartBED is the ability to configure it in ways to fit Soldiers' needs at outposts.

One goal of this research is to take steps toward developing a power distribution system that could make automated decisions about when to shut off less critical loads to keep as much of the critical capability as possible, Geil said. A further goal of the program is to provide the Army chain of command critical information such as "how long will the generator function before maintenance problems occur".

"It gives the commander the capability to plan ahead," he said. "We have intelligent systems out there now, but the challenge is that those systems rely heavily on human decision-making. If things change, and a person is not there to program the energy grid, there will be problems."

ARL has a research thrust toward cognitive networks and the use of this technology in power conversion and distribution for the future is one of many places that "smart systems" have value for the Army, he said.

This technology would be a key part of a power "router" that directs power from multiple sources to critical and non-critical loads. The system will prioritize power loads based on what is plugged in. At the lab, "our job is to push beyond the current capability and step up that ability by looking at controls and cognitive applications," Geil said.

"Researchers are working toward capabilities that take into account all that transpires in the fog of war, and they want to create smart systems that can sense what is plugged in, historical-use data and local restrictions," he said.

Geil envisions a system with cognitive algorithms to make decisions with minimal human guidance. Systems that can maintain operations of the most critical requirements such as critical communications and medical operations in the absence of guidance -- but that can be easily overridden by system operators -- people.

Engineers like Wood recognize that it's one thing to make something work in the sterile lab environment, but "it's a much different environment in places like Afghanistan."

Researchers have to close the gap so that they don't develop a seemingly perfect piece of equipment that no Soldier at an Army outpost would use, Wood said.

Wood added that other Army organizations like the Communication-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center take fundamental concepts closer to transition and have near-term programs such as the hybrid intelligent power (HI Power) program that increases efficiency by sharing loads on generators.

"We develop and refine a concept, and then ARL works with other Army Research, Development and Engineering Centers to refine and materialize intelligent energy solutions," Wood said.

"There are many trials before technology like this gets to the Soldier," he said. "SmartBED is designed to one day speed that process along."

SmartBED is the second in a series of four stories about ARL's far-reaching concepts for Army operational energy. The next article in the series is Long-lived Power. Scientists and engineers at ARL forecast energy solutions into the future with a portfolio of basic and applied science.