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Hydrogen fuel cells could star in long-endurance UAVs

Federal Aviation Administration approval of beyond visual line of sight unmanned air vehicle (UAV) operations could spur drone makers and operators to adopt hydrogen fuel cell powerplants.

This a perspective shared by some hydrogen fuel cell manufacturers, who claim that their powerplants’ high energy density are a better fit for long-endurance flights than batteries.

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MetaVista hydrogen fuel cell powered UAV

Intelligent Energy

“Fuel cell systems have been famously dubbed ‘the technology of tomorrow – and always will be.’ But, I think commercial UAVs are going to change that,” said Andy Kelly, head of UAV development for Intelligent Energy, a fuel cell manufacturer, on 30 April at the AUVSI Xponential conference. “When beyond visual line of sight legislation comes to reality, the ranges that a fuel cell can offer will be a requirement, rather than a nice-to-have.”

A hydrogen fuel cell powered multirotor UAV that weighs 25kg (55lb) typically has three times the endurance of a similar battery-powered drone, he says.

“As you go larger in a fuel cell system it actually gets much higher than that,” says Kelly. “We’ve seen flight times that are five, six, seven times that of a comparative battery.”

On April 16, South Korean company MetaVista claimed a multirotor UAV endurance record using an 800W hydrogen fuel cell made by Intelligent Energy. That drone flew for a little more than 12h.

In addition to providing higher energy density, hydrogen fuel cells are also quicker to refill than a battery, taking only seconds, Kelly says. Such systems also have few moving parts, which keeps vibration low. In addition, fuel cells come with a small battery that provides surge power to the rotors, but can be used as a backup power source as well.

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