Drone powered by fuel cell sets new UAS industry benchmark

By Patrick C. Miller | January 09, 2019

A project to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has beaten its original test flight target of 60 minutes with a 11-pound payload, setting a new benchmark for flight time and payload in the commercial UAV industry.

Project RACHEL—supported by Innovate UK—is led by venture engineering company Productiv on behalf of BATCAM, a UK drone filming company. The UAV is powered by fuel cells from Intelligent Energy, a team with expertise in producing light and powerful fuel cell stacks for commercial UAVs.

“The advantages of fuel cells over batteries for our customers are clear; fast refuel, no vibration, quiet operation, zero emission at point of use and three times more flight time than batteries,” said David Woolhouse, Intelligent Energy CEO. “Fuel cells are a game-changer for the commercial UAV market.”

The initial target of the project was to achieve 60 minutes of continuous flight while carrying an 11-pound payload. The lithium polymer battery-powered UAVs flown by BATCAM allowed about 12 minutes of useable flight. The recent test of the purpose-built fuel cell-powered UAV saw it fly uninterrupted for 70 minutes carrying an 11-pound payload.  This was achieved on a UAV with below 44-pound maximum take-off mass, using a 6-litre cylinder containing hydrogen gas compressed to 300 bar.

“Operators need longer flight times than can be delivered with batteries and are therefore seeking alternative power sources with higher power density,” said Jonathan Reed, project leader with Productiv. “Hydrogen power has huge potential here, and we anticipate a significant growth in the market for hydrogen-powered UAVs in the next few years.”

The project will be completed early in 2019 with BATCAM carrying out real-world end-user trials. A successful completion of the project is expected to bring major benefits for commercial UAV usage in the mining, agriculture, surveying and monitoring, security, and emergency services sectors.

Intelligent Energy completed the integration work while BATCAM provided advice on design requirements and project targets, as well as piloting the test flights. In addition, Intelligent Energy is commissioning and running trials for a user-friendly, cost-effective, portable refueling solution from NanoSUN, a specialist supplier of hydrogen fuel systems.

Jon Hurndall, CEO of BATCAM, noted that lithium polymer batteries are difficult and costly to transport internationally, and are also inefficient compared to hydrogen fuel cells. “A 60-minute-plus flight time with a large payload creates many opportunities, not only with our existing broadcast clients but in other commercial markets and sectors,” he said. “We are eager to explore these opportunities in 2019.”