Aerospace & Defence

Precision micromotors in defence electronics

5th January 2021
Alex Lynn

Emerging technologies have a large influence on the defence sector, facilitating the development of sophisticated electronic defence and intelligence systems. But how do you develop power components that meet the demands of innovative defence technology? Here, Stewart Goulding, Managing Director at Electro Mechanical Systems, has explained how precision micromotors are aiding the advancement of defence electronics.

The defence sector is a valuable contributor to the UK economy, providing a large number of jobs and investing in a number of UK industries. However the relationship is mutualistic, with advancements in industry benefitting the defence sector. In particular, powering electronic defence equipment, such as breathing apparatus and remotely operated vehicles, with high precision motors aids the sector’s success.

Remotely operated vehicles

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are used to carry out dangerous tasks or activities in hazardous environments. On land, ROVs may carry out missions such as exploration, mine reconnaissance or even explosive ordnance disposal (EOD).

ROVs can also be used in underwater environments to eliminate the need to endanger a diver or to reach areas that are difficult to access. Underwater, ROVs may carry out additional tasks, such as hull inspections and retrieval of lost equipment. ROVs feature robotic arms to hold equipment and handle explosives, and possess a rotating camera for the operator to see the surrounding environment and the task being performed.

Using a compact, highly efficient yet powerful ironless rotor motor allows precise and agile movements of the arms and camera, while adding minimal weight to the vehicle. A lower weight allows the vehicle to move through water or across rough terrain with ease and in combination with the high efficiency reduces load on the onboard battery, which in turn increases the usable operating time of the vehicle.

Detection systems

Optical imaging systems are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) applications. The high-resolution images and videos, along with spectral data, can be used to detect targets and threats. The optical imaging systems require motors for zoom, focus, pan and tilt functions.

Equipment that uses powerful, precise and compact motors will be able to perform quick and accurate camera movements, ensuring an image or video of a fast moving subject such as an aircraft or ground vehicle can be captured without adding significant bulk or mass to the camera system.

Radar systems are also used to monitor the surrounding environment, using radio waves to determine the range, angle and velocity of moving objects or learn about the surrounding terrain. They can be used to detect aircraft, motor vehicles, ships, guided missiles and weather formations. Early detection provides time for preparation, whether that’s sheltering from a storm or using a smart sensor to redirect an oncoming missile.

Radars consist of many rotating components and a moveable dish to detect signals from all angles. They therefore require high torque motors to power fast and responsive movements. The motors must also be durable to ensure they can withstand being exposed to extreme outdoor conditions. A motor fault or failure could result in missed signals, which may have fatal consequences.

Wearable equipment

Defence personnel who are working in the field may encounter environments with air that has been contaminated with dangerous gases or biological toxins. A powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) filters a portion of the surrounding air to remove hazards and then delivers the clean air to the user.

It’s important that the motors used to power the filtering process are reliable, as a fault or failure could be life threatening. Engineers designing a PAPR should choose motors that are trustworthy and efficient to ensure high performance filtering when equipment is worn for a long period of time. A compact ironless rotor motor with very high efficiency, fast acceleration and very stable dynamic performance  such as the FAULHABER SR series, is an ideal choice for PAPRs.

Another potential example of wearable electronic defence equipment is powered exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are wearable suits powered by a combination of electric motors, levers, hydraulics and pneumatics, which assist limb movement. Sensors are installed into the suit to record the movements of the user, with the information collected being fed to the electric motors that power the movements.

Applications of exoskeletons in the defence sector are still in the development stage but are being trailed out in a number of nations. Defence exoskeleton prototypes are showing the potential to allow users to go beyond their physical capability, performing with higher strength and endurance.

Exoskeletons may also protect the wearer from physical strain, which is a common problem in the defence sector. These qualities may help with tasks in the defence sector such as long-distance trekking, but the full potential of using these exoskeletons in a combat sense is not yet certain.

The motors in these suits used must be lightweight to allow quick and agile movements, and powerful to propel limps forward. The motors must also have high precision to work to together to create synchronised movements.

Service robots

Robotic systems are not only beneficial as wearable exoskeletons. Defence service robots are also becoming more widely researched, with perhaps the most promising application being carrying equipment.

Defence personnel often have to travel long distances, whether they’re moving to a new base or performing surveillance over a  large area. A loaded march is where defence personnel must move quickly over a long distance while carrying a significant load. This journey can be tiring and straining, particularly if performed in an extreme climate. In the desert heat, the use of loaded marches must be limited to avoid heat exhaustion, which can prolong the personnel’s journey

It is in long distance trekking where robot dogs, such as those developed by Boston Dynamics, are advantageous. For example, their quadruped military robot, BigDog, was capable of carrying up to 330 pounds while remaining balanced over rough terrain.

Although this project was discontinued, as the gas-powered engine of the robot made it too loud for combat, research into producing similar robots that are all-electric and powered by micromotors could produce a quieter yet capable robot for the defence sector.

The increasing complexity of global safety threats calls for more sophisticated defence technology. Electronic defence equipment designed with durable, precision motors can perform with accuracy and reliability, helping to keep defence personnel and public citizens safe.

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