US Air Force Deploys Solar Power For New Self-Assembling Tent

CleanTechnica |  April 11, 2022 | By Tina Casey

The Brooklyn Navy Yard was the legendary birthplace of America’s mightiest warships from 1801 to 1966, when it stopped producing warships. Fortunately, the sprawling facility has come roaring back to life as a leading hub of clean tech innovation. That includes solar power, and the Air Force is banking on the Brooklyn-based company Pvilion Solar to help sustain the green fighting force of the future under the new Agile Combat Employment directive.

Solar Power & Tents

For all the technology advances in military systems over the past 1,000 years or so, on-the-go shelter has seen little in the way of foundational change. Expeditionary forces still rely on tents and canopies to keep the elements at bay.

Forces on the move also rely on fuel and water that moves with them, a topic that came to light with all its lethal consequences in the form of bomb-vulnerable supply convoys during the Iraq war, and most recently during Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Marine Corps and the US Army began turning to renewable energy as a solution to the expeditionary energy-water nexus problem, with a focus on solar power.

Aside from avoiding fuel transportation costs, solar power reduces the need for noisy, polluting gas or diesel generators. With solar power in play, warfighters in camp have less exposure to health and safety risks. Reducing the level of noise-induced stress is another plus for combat-readiness.

Solar Power Plus Flexibility

The US Army appears to be the first to express interest in the idea of outfitting its tents and canopies with solar power. By 2010, members of the Kansas Army National Guard were already deploying a PV-enabled tent in Djibuti, in the form of a solar-plus-storage mashup with batteries from a Hawker High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (aka, generically, the humvee).

The US Marine Corps began introducing portable PV panels to the field by 2009, and it was also experimenting with PV-enabled tents by 2011. Not to be one-upped, in 2013 the Army introduced the idea of replacing a flexible, fabric tent with a new system that combines a solar canopy with a structure made with lightweight, energy-efficient walls. The idea is to maximize the overall efficiency of the system by conserving the output from solar canopies.

The Pvilion Solar Tent Solution

Pvilion Solar has been making PV-enabled solar tents, canopies, and sails for more than 20 years. It first flapped across the CleanTechnica radar just a few years ago, in 2017, so we have some catching up to do.

Back in 2020 the US Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office tasked Pvilion to develop and deliver a self-deploying tent with solar power, called HEXT for Hands-Off Expeditionary Tent.

Personnel at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska deployed the HEXT system at its flight line during the “Polar Force 22-4” exercise on March 31which focused on the new Agile Combat Employment directive. They gave the technology a big thumbs-up.

The HEXT system appears to build on the structure-plus-canopy idea, to achieve maximum energy efficiency.

“The tents…have a 42-inch by-42 inch footprint when they’re packed up and on a pallet. Airmen can offload them, plug them into a battery bank, press a button, and almost walk away; in three minutes, the tent has put itself up into a 20 foot by 20 foot shelter with windows and doors, 11 feet tall,” enthused JBER public affairs officer Chris McCann in an article posted by the base last week.

The solar angle comes in the form of Pvilion’s Solar Powered Integrated Structure, which is a solar canopy that can be mounted on the same frame as the tent. Alternatively, the SPIS canopy can be spread over any available surface, including other structures, vehicles, and the bare ground.

“The panels power rugged battery packs that almost snap together — a modular system. The first Airmen arriving at the location can bring one or two batteries, with follow-on troops bringing more as needed. When the mission’s over, the majority can be taken out, leaving only one or two for the last bits of power needed,” McCann added.

Reliable Solar Power For The US Air Force

Reliability being the key driver for military-purposed energy-on-the-go, the SPIS kit sports a conventional generator to back up its batteries when needed. The generator and the batteries carry on a running conversation and can switch seamlessly from one to the other.

As for the output, McCann noted that the SIPS kit can deliver up to 12,000 watts, which is the same wattage need to run an entire home including extras such as tools and computers, as well as an HVAC system and other large appliances.

JBER provides the Air Force with an opportunity to test the efficiency of the solar canopy in cold weather. We’re assuming it did okay, based on McCann’s commentary and the performance of other cold-weather PV systems. The system is also being tested elsewhere around the US for a range of temperatures and weather conditions.

Solar Power & The Energy-Water Nexus

Another site testing the system is Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, which also hosting another Air Force project that features Pvilion’s solar technology, under the name Project Arcwater.

Project Arcwater was birthed through the Air Force’s 2022 “Spark Tank” innovation competition. Created by Senior Master Sgt. Brent Kenney and Tech Sgt. Matthew Connelly of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, it combines moisture-capturing technology with solar power.

“Water and power are nonnegotiable when standing up a forward operating location. But it’s not to get fuel and water on location. What if we could generate from thin air? Project Arcwater is an agile combat employment system that aims to significantly decrease the logistics of transporting water and energy needs at off-the-grid locations through solar panels, a water harvester, and AC/heating tool, creating 26 gallons of potable water out of thin air,” the Air Force explains.

“Project Arcwater is an Agile Combat Employment initiative that addresses the logistics challenges associated with moving large quantities of water and fuel to forward operating locations. The project aims to provide an off-the-grid power using solar energy and atmospheric water harvesting. The solution is designed to be independent of local infrastructure, easy to move, easy to set-up, and easy to operate,” its creators add.

Check out the Project Arcwater video for more details, and if you’re wondering what Agile Combat Employment is, that’s a good question. The ACE doctrine is a recent development that grew out of Air Force challenges in the Pacific. It was adopted throughout the Air Force last December.

The ACE doctrine includes a logistics element that emphasizes local sourcing, transportable systems and quick set-up. Considering that the Air Force also came up with the vision of a carbon-negative future for the whole Department of Defense, it’s a safe bet that solar power and other renewables will feature front and center as the ACE doctrine unspools.

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