A US Marine, above, powers up high-efficiency solar panels in the sun last month during a test of the Marine Austere Patroling System in Bridgeport, Calif. Left, two high-efficiency solar panels sit with a Marine's gear. (US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — US Marines worn out from carrying 100 pounds of equipment and supplies on long field exercises have something to look forward to: wearable water purification and solar charging systems that promise to reduce 60 pounds of bottled water and backup batteries to just 13 pounds of gear for a 96-hour patrol.
This month, Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., tested the Marine Austere Patrolling System (MAPS), a prototype including, among other things, a filter that can make water from fresh sources safe to drink, a high-efficiency solar panel using space technology, and coordinating rechargeable batteries — all in a specially designed vest for ease of wear.
The Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office has been developing the technology in partnership with the US Naval Research Laboratory and others, said Maj. Sean Sadlier, the office’s technology and requirements officer.
The Army is developing its own system with similar objectives, he said.
“They’re looking at an integrated approach to reducing the weight for an individual Marine,” he said.
Sadlier said the Marines decided to zero in on water and power, essential elements in a Marine’s load that can add a lot of weight.
On the MAPS system, a membrane water filter is attached to a bladder that can hold about a liter and a half of water. The system allows Marines to purify water from wells or fresh sources, such as rivers and streams, to within Army drinking standards.
The 9-by-14-inch flexible solar panel can scavenge sunlight through a thick treeline, and the coordinating system, including an ergonomic “conformal battery” brick and a power manager built into the vest, can run most of the electrical devices a Marine carries. Sadlier said the system even includes a USB connector so Marines can power up their phones and iPods on the go — a popular feature in testing.
“Unless it’s North Korea in the winter, I could see this being used in most environments, even a jungle environment,” Sadlier said.
The panel and power system are designed to be carried by fire team leaders and squad leaders; the water filtration system can be carried by any member of the patrol, he said.
During the Oct. 14-19 system test and a previous field test at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in July, feedback from troops has been largely positive, with minor criticism about the way the system fit and the durability of some components, Sadlier said. At Bridgeport, four Marines in two companies of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, tested the system, with one platoon exploring its power limits during a night patrol.
“All the Marines, their batteries were dry, and only the Marines with MAPS, because their systems were scavenging power all day, were able to make it through the night,” Sadlier said.
Ultimately, he said, no one with the system ran out of power or water during a barrage of exercises and patrols.
One catch to the new technology is the cost: about $16,000 per MAPS unit, or $10,000 for the solar panel alone. But officials hope that more development will drive costs down and result in elements ready to manufacture and field. Testing of the water and power systems is slated to conclude next spring.
Meanwhile, officials may let units deploy with the gear they’ve purchased for testing: 22 high-efficiency solar panels, 16 vest power managers, 40 conformal batteries and 60 water filters.