The US Army has funded a research programme that seeks to develop necessary technologies that will enable drones to autonomously recharge from ground vehicles.

The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) has signed a four-year, $8m cooperative agreement with the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

The programme plans to enable small battery-powered drones to autonomously return to unmanned ground vehicles for recharging. It will help in extending the operational range of the unmanned air vehicles and support military missions.

As agreed, UIC will be developing algorithms to enable route planning for multiple teams of small unmanned air and ground vehicles.

This will help drones identify optimal routes during a military mission to autonomously return to unmanned ground vehicles for recharging.

The process will involve recharging the UASs using fast, wireless power transfer technologies while the drones hover around unmanned ground vehicles. It will not require soldier involvement.

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If implemented, the technology will eliminate the need for carrying thousands of drone batteries during missions, which is logistically challenging, and improve battle readiness.

Army Research Laboratory Versatile Tactical Power and Propulsion Essential Research Program manager Dr Mike Kweon said: “I believe this is the only way to realise practical UAS swarming, and small UAS and UGV teaming.

“Without solving how to handle the energy demand, all other advanced technologies using artificial intelligence and machine learning will be useless for the army.

“On the battlefield, we do not have luxury to replace batteries for hundreds of UAVs and recharging them for hours.”

For larger drones, the research will seek to develop the necessary technology to build miniaturised fuel sensors for future multi-fuel hybrid-electric propulsion systems. It will help the drones to operate using different types of fuels.

In August, a US Army research unit developed a new sensor to help small drones avoid collisions with energised power lines.