Can fuel cell powered drones overcome the challenge of long endurance flight?

Can fuel cell powered drones overcome the challenge of long endurance flight?

One of the main challenges for drone operators is flight time. Long endurance flight allows for more efficient commercial operations, more data and improved total cost of ownership.

At present, operations such as surveying, pipeline inspection and mapping are done with battery powered drones or helicopters. Fuel cells offer advantages in both cases in terms of cost and safety.  With battery drones, poor flight times and long recharging times are blockers to efficient operation. Helicopters are expensive and have to be crewed.

Our fuel cell modules are lightweight, easy to integrate and give drone operators the capacity to increase their payload. High quality cameras, LiDAR sensors and bathymetric LiDAR sensors can be flown for up to 3 hours instead of around 30 minutes with a battery. New applications are unlocked and the advantages of flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) are complemented with increased range and no limitations on payloads.

Applications of long endurance drones

The challenge of increasing flight time is relevant to all applications for drones, including the following:

  • Linear Inspection – unlike batteries, fuel cells can improve operational efficiency when inspecting power lines and pipelines as fewer stops are needed due to increased range and downtime is reduced with faster refuelling.
  • Offshore Wind Inspection – fuel cell technology enables drones to take off from the shore instead of from a boat. This is due to the increased range they can offer and enables a greater number of towers to be inspected in one flight.
  • Mapping – with data capture and the ability to cover large areas being key, the ability to remain in the air for longer periods of time helps operators to map effectively and provide more accurate results.
  • Package delivery – this is made more efficient and more practical the greater the endurance of the drone. In time, drones will be expected to delivery larger packages and travel longer distances.

You can learn more about the benefits of fuel cell powered drones for commercial UAV operators in our previous article.

The IE-SOAR range for long endurance flight

IE-SOAR is our lightweight range of hydrogen fuel cell modules for fixed wing, rotary wing and VTOL applications. The fuel cells within this range are designed to reduce restrictive flight times, and this is through higher energy to mass ratio when compared to batteries. Fuel cell powered drones fly further and for longer, enabling previously impossible applications.

These drones also help overcome the issue of refuelling times, refuelling faster than battery alternatives. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can refuel in minutes, reducing downtime for operations in the field. Hydrogen cylinders can be swapped out once the drone has landed or portable refuelling infrastructure can be used to refill the cylinder mounted to the platform. This allows the operator to be back in the air sooner, reducing the amount downtime.

Case study

We collaborated with ISS Aerospace and built the hydrogen fuel cell that powers their drone, the SENSUS UAV. A lithium polymer battery would give this drone 30 minutes of flight time with a 25km range, whereas having a fuel cell and hydrogen cylinder onboard would offer up to 90 minutes of flight and a range of up to 75km.

What are the alternatives to hydrogen fuel cells for long endurance flight?

Alternatives to fuel cell powered drones do exist in attempts to facilitate longer endurance flight, and these include IC engine hybrids and solar variations.

Solar power

Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity and store the electricity generated in batteries or super capacitators. They are, however, unreliable in comparison to hydrogen fuel cells as a result of the variability of solar radiation, low efficiency and low power density.

IC Engine hybrid power

IC engines can compete with fuel cells in terms of range, but are loud, dirty, vibrate a lot and require a large amount of maintenance. If used frequently, fuel cells will run for thousands of hours without any maintenance required.

Hydrogen fuel cells can increase time spent in the air and reduce recharging frequency, making drone flight more efficient. To find out more about the solutions Intelligent Energy can offer for long endurance drones, fill out a contact form or email us at today!