UTD Researcher Gets DARPA Fellowship for Work on Wireless UAV Recharging

UTD's Dr. Ifana Mahbub is leading a research team that's developing wireless technology to transfer electromagnetic waves to and from far distances. Beyond drones, the research could also impact EVs, mobile phones, and wearable devices.

A UT Dallas researcher has been awarded the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Director’s Fellowship to help continue her development of wireless technology for recharging drones in flight.

Ifana Mahbub, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UT Dallas, leads research that could also impact electric vehicles, mobile phones, and wearable devices, the university said.

“Our first goal is to deliver as much power as possible over a longer distance,” said Mahbub, a Texas Instruments Early Career Fellow and director of the Integrated Biomedical, RF Circuits and Systems Lab in UTD’s Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.

DARPA awards the fellowships to Young Faculty Award recipients who demonstrate exceptional performance. Mahbub received a Young Faculty Award—which provided $500,000 over two years—in 2021. Her newly announced fellowship provides an additional $250,000.

Dr. Ifana Mahbub, left, and her team of researchers are developing wireless technology to recharge unmanned aerial vehicles in flight.[ Photo: UT Dallas]

Beaming targeted power from a distance

UT Dallas said that Mahbub and her team of researchers are developing wireless technology to transfer electromagnetic waves to and from far distances.

It’s called far-field wireless power transfer, or power beaming. The tech would enable drones to recharge without having to land at power stations, UTD said. The technology would mark a significant advance in wireless recharging, which the university noes is limited right now to transferring power via low-frequency electromagnetic waves between “very short distances,” such as to a cellphone from a nearby charger.

One of the challenges of power beaming at far distances is preventing electromagnetic waves from scattering along the way, UTD said. To solve that issue, Mahbub and her team use a system of transmitters, or smaller antennas called phased-array antennas, to steer the electromagnetic waves along a targeted path.

“The signal can go in undesired directions,” Mahbub said. “Our goal is to engineer the waveform so that we can minimize the path loss.”

UTD said the tech also uses telemetry to track the movements of a UAV in real time to ensure the signal moves in the right direction.

“We can track the unmanned aerial vehicle and steer the beam to ensure we’re constantly powering the dynamic vehicles,” Mahbub said in a statement. “That way, a drone going for a mission doesn’t have to return to a bay station for recharging or a battery change.”

‘Groundbreaking research’

Mahbub said the concept of far-field charging for UAVs applies to other technologies, including electric vehicles, mobile phones, and wearable devices. Enabling far-field charging for vehicles or phones would involve placing transmitters in buildings and other infrastructures, she added.

Mahbub is also working on developing wireless charging technology for implanted devices that could use low-frequency electromagnetic waves at a safe level that’s mandated by the FCC.

Her team of researchers includes electrical engineering doctoral students Adnan Patwary and Rafsan Mahin and Sunanda Roy, a postdoctoral research associate.

Mahbub, who joined UTD in 2022, also received a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award in 2020.

“Through her groundbreaking research on wireless charging for UAVs and her remarkable talent for fostering collaborative relationships, Prof. Ifana Mahbub excels in not only the research but also the path toward innovation and teamwork in our department,” Dinesh Bhatia, department head and professor of electrical and computer engineering, said in a statement.

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