By Amy Brundeen
Ifana Mahbub, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the University of North Texas’ College of Engineering, is the recipient of the 2021 Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She is the first at UNT to receive this prestigious grant.
The objective of the award program is to identify and engage rising research stars, emphasizing those without prior DARPA funding, with the long-term goal of developing the next generation of academic scientists and engineers to focus a portion of their career on Department of Defense and national security issues.
Mahbub will use the two-year $500,000 award to research and develop the next generation of wireless power transfer network of unmanned aircraft systems.
“Just like with a wireless communication network, DARPA’s mission is to develop a robust and resilient web of energy, a network for power delivery,” Mahbub says.
If drones in the battlefield need to recharge or the batteries are going down, they won’t have to travel to a base station to recharge. Instead, they can be charged wirelessly from the ground or from another set of drones.
“We asked ‘How can we deliver power wirelessly efficiently?’” Mahbub explains. “In order to do that we will design special phased-array antennas with a high gain, a narrow beamwidth and wide bandwidth along with the electromechanical beam steering circuitries in order to laser focus electromagnetic energy in a certain direction and steer it as necessary to charge a mobile unmanned aerial vehicle. Along the way, on-chip rectifier and voltage regulators will be researched to maximize power conversion efficiency”
By narrowing the beamwidth of the electromagnetic signal and steering the beam with the help of both electrical and mechanical steering, Mahbub hopes to prove that the unmanned aircraft vehicles can be charged over a long distance with a high power transfer efficiency. They will use ultra-wideband signals that will be sent in a beam from the ground to an unmanned aerial vehicle or eventually by multiple drones sent to those in the field.
“We will work to develop a network of drones, identifying how many drones are needed, how much power is needed to be transferred and how to maneuver the center energy sphere so that we can efficiently charge a moving target,” Mahbub says.
UNT’s Kamesh Namuduri, professor of electrical engineering who is an expert in drone communications, will serve as a technical consultant for the project. Mahbub also will develop flexible antennas with additive manufacturing, using the capabilities of UNT’s Center for Agile and Adaptive Manufacturing.
The Young Faculty Award program is different from other grant programs in that Mahbub will work closely with an assigned mentor, Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, a program manager at DARPA who will guide her success. If the research and proof of concept in the first two years go well, Mahbub could be chosen for a DARPA Director’s Fellowship, which will provide an additional $250,000 to scale up the technology into an actual system.
“This recognition is very significant for my career not only because it’s a very prestigious award, but more important is the network of people at DARPA that I’ll have as mentors,” Mahbub says. “I’m blessed to have this kind of support from DARPA to help my research become successful in such an exciting field.”