UL developing standards to make drone batteries safer

By Patrick C. Miller | April 25, 2018

The UL label on electrical products that certifies their safety will soon be coming to the lithium ion batteries that power most commercial and recreational drones.

UL 3030 is the the published standard for drone electrical systems from UL LLC, the safety science company—formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories—that began back in 1894. Standards for a certification process will first be implemented in the U.S. and Canada and are expected to become the global standard over the next several years.

With sales of commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) expected to exceed $12 billion by 2021, concerns remain about lithium batteries overheating, causing fires and potentially exploding. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has reported more than 200 incidents involving lithium ion batteries and drones. About 50 percent of those incidents occurred while the drone batteries were being charged.

“We see UL 3030 as being a positive, proactive way to reinforce the safety of drones because we see them as a critical part of the future,” said Ken Boyce, director of principal engineers for UL’s energy and power technologies business. “We want them to be safe.”

Today, UL has 12,000 employees, serves customers in more than 100 counties and has nearly 200 facilities around the world. Boyce said it performs 100,000 engineering evaluations every year and about 22 billion products are shipped annually with the UL mark on them.

“We’re focused on safe working and living environments,” Boyce noted. “That means having anybody who’s a consumer know that they can trust that UL mark to indicate that the product they’re bringing into their home or workplace is safe.”

To help prevent future incidents involving lithium-ion batteries in drones, UL has been working with government agencies and the UAS industry in the U.S. and Canada to develop a certification program to help reassure users and regulators that the drone’s electrical system has been evaluated to the appropriate safety standards. The initial draft of UL 3030 is already published and is in the final stages of the consensus standard process, where those requirements are under consideration by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Canadian National Standard for use as an identical document for the safety of unmanned aerial vehicles in both countries.

“Lithium ion batteries are the workhorse of today’s technologies,” Boyce said. “They have a lot of positive attributes. They have a very high energy density, which means you pack a lot of energy into a given footprint.”

But poor battery designs, contaminants, manufacturing defects or incorrect uses can cause the battery cells to overheat. When the heat builds up to a level where it can’t dissipate fast enough, a condition known as thermal runaway occurs, causing the batteries to catch fire and sometimes explode.

“That’s the challenge we have to try to mitigate with safety science being applied proactively to batteries,” Boyce explained. “We’ve worked on a research program for about 15 years to really understand those failure modes and push that forward into battery safety standards. We’ve looked at the battery cell, the battery packs and the electronics used to keep these cells in their safe operating modes.”

Another challenge is in making drones safer without affecting their performance, a goal which Boyce believes UL 3030 has achieved.

“We really wanted to think about the particular aspects of drone use to make sure it’s the right way,” he said. “We’ve seen good consolidation into support of UL 3030. We feel good about having the drone industry, the government parties, supply chain people and users all come together and say, ‘Yes, this looks like the right set of requirements to make sure things are safe.’”