A global military relies on extensive training of the fighting force, demands complex logistics to match vital supplies and supporting infrastructure to far-flung locations -- all done with special attention to providing critical technology that is effective and dependable, no matter the conditions.
That’s an enormous task. When you also add into the equation the energy and environmental issues that are increasingly key to the mission for the modern American military, it becomes clear that it takes a broad, comprehensive effort and multi-disciplinary teams to help our armed forces meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
One key player in meeting this assignment is the National Defense Center for Energy and the Environment, or NDCEE, a special program created by Congress in 1991 to address energy and environmental issues while building a process to identify, test and implement technological advances. The NDCEE’s lead agent is the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, with the U.S. Army Environmental Command serving as the current program manager that works with other military services to demonstrate and validate technology solutions.
“We work to investigate, demonstrate, and help field viable, mission-driven solutions,” said Clayton Ferguson, lead for NDCEE at AEC. “From the beginning, NDCEE has helped identify and solve environmental, energy and safety issues. We’ve increasingly focused on occupational well-being and the ever-pressing challenge of climate change. We work with Department of Defense principal research investigators to fund the best ideas, create collaborative teams to test the applicability of those ideas and provide assistance in implementing the technology once confirmed the technology solution can help improve performance.”
Ferguson said the NDCEE program focuses on research, demonstration, validation, and transition of sustainable technologies, bolstering military readiness while enhancing the sustainability, efficiency and resilience of critical technology used in military operations in a variety of settings. Typical projects range from one to two years with annual costs from $20,000 to $500,000.
“NDCEE was established to help the Department of Defense and the warfighter achieve performance advantages, enhance efficiency and cost-effectiveness and comply with regulations,” Ferguson said. “NDCEE has broadened its scope and changed how it does business to achieve this mission. However, the focus remains on improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness, even as the methods have expanded dramatically. Ultimately, at NDCEE our bottom line will continue to focus on safeguarding the warfighter, saving lives, and protecting our environment.”
One ongoing project that illustrates this approach well, Ferguson said, had a goal to develop a standardized battery to support mission essential robots. Robots are increasingly important in mission success in a variety of battlefield and other contexts and allow for increasing safety of soldiers. However, the batteries that power these robots are often of varying capacity, age and health, which impacts optimal charge and discharge. An ongoing NDCEE project is in the process of developing a system-based solution to improve performance, maximize mission time, reduce downtime, expand battery life and cut costs.
David Skalny of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Ground Vehicle Systems Center is leading the “Intelligent Battery Tray for Small- and Medium-Sized Explosive Ordnance Disposal (ESD) Robots.” He said his team has developed and is testing a method to control individual battery life by creating a system-approach.
Skalny said in past power systems, each standard battery operated independently and delivered a fixed amount of electrical current based on its ability to deliver at that level. This creates several problems, he said, as batteries will burn out at different rates, and when one battery fails, under certain conditions, it could cause the power source to have insufficient capability to serve the full electrical load. Further, overtaxing individual batteries can lead to overheating and system shutdown.
“That’s what makes the intelligent tray so powerful,” Skalny said, adding that using a control system to draw power more evenly across the battery array, and lessening loads on individual batteries as required, creates much better performance. This tray is designed to maximize the mission time, reduce operational interruption, and help with mission planning based on that more consistent performance.”
Skalny said the improved performance could bring significant cost savings of as much as $5 million for each 1,000-robot fleet. The intelligent tray system is currently undergoing extensive testing to demonstrate performance in an operational environment.
The intelligent battery tray project is part of an extensive list of energy-themed projects from NDCEE. There are other areas of emphasis in which the NDCEE launches and supports projects -- environmental, safety, and occupational health. In fiscal year 2020, NDCEE doubled the number of project proposals it received from the previous year to 53, and in FY 2022, it again increased that number to 65 proposals.
Ferguson said NDCEE screens proposals for those that best support mission and readiness, are of high technical quality, have a high likelihood to be transitioned into a military environment and support modernization and innovation efforts across the military.
“We don’t restrict proposals to a set list of user needs or requirements. Instead, the process allows flexibility and dynamic responsiveness to the changing needs of DoD,” Ferguson said. “This flexibility allows NDCEE to fund valuable efforts that other funding sources may not otherwise consider.”
The projects that have emerged through the review and extensive testing from NDCEE are numerous and are making a difference every day. Examples include parachute sensors that improved safety and saved $400,000 a year and the Joint Operational Energy Command and Control that allows Army and Marine combat teams to operate with real-time and accurate energy information, which has led to significantly reduced operational risk, enhanced energy security, and changed operational behavior and curtailed waste. (For a comprehensive list of active projects, go to: https://www.denix.osd.mil/ndcee/active-project/)
Another energy project that is showing great promise and nearing the final stages of testing is the Soldier Wearable Power Generator – Reformed Methanol 50 Fuel Cell Power System formerly known as the Honey Badger 50 W (HB50) Reformed Methanol Wearable Fuel Cell Power System. This wearable power system has received positive feedback from soldiers that evaluated it at test events because it can reduce the soldier weight burden significantly while recharging batteries “on-the-move.” This enables extended mission durations and eases the logistics burden by eliminating the reliance on resupply when operating in austere environments.