February 10, 2017

An Air Force: UMass Lowell Takes Second at DOE Collegiate Wind Competition

Emily Izzo, Project Administrator for IIS

To use the common phrase, necessity is the mother of invention. That, plus plenty of funding, as any entrepreneur well knows.

So it’s not too surprising to realize how many everyday products permeating our society were initially the results of government-funded military innovation. We find them on our phones (GPS), in our garages (Jeeps and jerrycans), and secreted away in bottom drawers waiting for a comeback (cargo pants, anyone?). The common thread to all these inventions is that they make military logistics simpler and cheaper, and with UMass Lowell’s award-winning entry to the 2016 Department of Energy (DOE) Collegiate Wind Competition in New Orleans, we may soon add “safer” and “renewable” to that list as well.

The challenge is simple: with forward bases dispersed across large areas in austere environments, maintaining supply lines and, especially, power, to military operations is an expensive, dangerous undertaking – a logistical nightmare in every era. Innovations like the ones listed above, not to mention canned food, jet engines, and the infinitely useful duct tape (invented by a Navy mom – look it up!), have dramatically improved the supply situation in the modern era, but user-friendly, reliable and portable power generation systems have continued to elude us. Thus, UMass’s solution: a kite-based wind turbine designed for distributed generation in punishing remote environments. Despite the fanciful sounding concept, this is not your preschool nephew’s box kite, but a durable airborne device able to generate up to 6 kilowatts of clean power on the frontlines, offsetting backup diesel generation and reducing overall greenhouse gases produced.

To better understand Army’s energy needs and constraints, Lowell’s team of 18 students worked with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center before engineering their inflatable kite solution. “It was wonderful to work with the Army team,” said UMass Professor David Willis. “Many people helped immensely with time and advice.”

So what’s next for the project? Jet planes became commercialized, canned food made its way into every American kitchen, and cargo pants found their way into some regrettable ‘90s yearbook photos – where will the kite turbine be seen in the future?

Most of the students involved with the project graduated this spring, but the team will likely compete in an international challenge for the Industrial Fabrics Association International, with some revisions based on the technical and business feedback provided by DOE. According to UMass Professor Chris Niezrecki, “There are still a lot of technical hurdles to overcome, but the Army is still interested in this and we’re hopeful they’ll be able to provide additional support to truly finish the product begun with this competition.”

With ties to the military in my own family, I’m as eager as any to see this turbine take off, and I’m hopeful that DOE, the Department of Defense and the students themselves will continue to value young, creative minds developing impactful energy solutions for all walks of life.