How Conformal Wearable Batteries Improve Modern Combat Capabilities

In years gone by, when the military rolled out new technology to its soldiers and Marines, troops on the ground understood that they would likely be carrying more spare batteries. Nearly 10 years ago, the Pentagon noted that troops in Afghanistan “… carry more than 33 batteries, weighing up to 10 pounds.”1 Depending on a warfighter's specialty, the weight added for spare batteries can double. Case in point: a radio operator deployed on a long mission.

Rethinking how leading-edge tech could be used to give troops greater situational awareness of their combat environment, the Nett Warrior (NW) program2 was launched in 2010. Today, the NW program involves mobile server stacks that create a tactical wireless network on the battlefield and an array of tech gear that allows individual warfighters to stream video from drones and ground-based robots3 with overlays that display friendly troops and command and control points. Radios, night vision gear, GPS receivers, and a panoply of electronic devices are standard issue for NW warfighters. Individual troops no longer need to carry those large caches of spare batteries. Conformal wearable batteries (CWB) are replacing the dozen or more pounds that yesteryear's soldiers had to lug around the battlefield.

Conformal Wearable Batteries Improve Mobility, Agility

CWB are manufactured in a thin, flat, flexible package that fits into the soldier's tactical vest and body armor. They conform to the shape of the human body4 and can be worn in the chest, side, or back pouch areas. CWB are available as both primary (not rechargeable) and secondary (rechargeable) batteries. They typically weigh approximately 2 pounds, but offer as much as 16 amp-hours of capacity and 250 watt-hours of energy. They give dismounted troops greater agility and mobility and reduce the overall weight of batteries each must carry. Learn more about CWB technology here.

Advances in Conformal Wearable Batteries

The U.S. Army Materiel Command’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is at the center of conformal wearable battery technology for the Army. “If we see promise in an idea or concept [for a battery], and feel it will help satisfy soldier power requirements, we will mature it until we have a prototype,” said one of CERDEC's research chemical engineers. 6 However, battery development is a slow process that often takes a decade for a promising new battery design to make it from the laboratory to the soldier in the field.

The pace is slow because the battery chemistry used to convert chemical energy to electricity covers a huge range of possibilities from the traditional alkaline battery, to dozens of lithium-ion chemistries, to a host of exotic choices such as zinc-air batteries. The choice of anode and cathode material as well as the electrolyte used to transfer ions between terminals all affect the characteristics and performance of any battery.

Despite these challenges, in less than a decade, the military has seen advancements in conformal design and capability:

  • Unlike traditional batteries, CWB are designed with power distribution and management in mind. The CWB output is routed through cables to specific pre-defined locations on the soldier's body, so that various electronic devices can plug in to a single power source. CWB provide a state-of-charge indicator that lets soldiers monitor the amount of power remaining.
  • Concerns about arms fire penetrating a CWB and causing a short circuit that leads to a fire have been addressed. CWBs today incorporate ballistic shielding that distributes a projectile's kinetic energy over a wide area and prevents damage to the battery. CWBs are tested and rated for their ability to withstand small arms fire.
  • Conformals have become “smart batteries,” providing information both to the soldier and to the electronic gear the battery powers. A conformal battery's compatibility with a specification known as SMBus allows control circuitry to communicate with the connected devices (electrical loads), to alert the user and to manage the recharging of secondary (rechargeable) batteries.7

Portable Power for Every Application

With continuous advances in battery technology, the NW program and conformal wearable batteries have revolutionized how battles are fought. Yet, there is hardly an industry that does not use mobile or portable equipment that needs a power source. Contact EaglePicher Technologies to learn how our experience in developing batteries for the defense sector — as well as in space, aviation, medical, oil and gas — can put innovative solutions into the hands of manufacturers or government contractors.