This month, the Singapore-based company Horizon Unmanned Systems (HUS) presented the world’s first hydrogen-powered, multi-rotor UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that uses its own structural elements to store fuel.
“We realized that the structures of these drones were hollow inside,” said company CEO Taras Wankewycz. “We’re now able to use that space to instead of filling it with air, fill it with a useful gas, which is hydrogen.”
Unlike any of the other currently-available drones that can stay in the air for no more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time, the “Hycopter” can fly for up to 4 hours (or 2.5 hours if carrying a 1 kg payload) per single charge, bringing drone survey and long-distance delivery missions closer to reality.
In a clever design feature, the Hycopter stores 120 g of hydrogen gas at 350 bar (5,075 psi) in its existing structural tubing – no separate canister is required. According to HUS, this amount of hydrogen fuel should provide as much energy as 3 kg worth of lithium batteries.
While the tubing of the prototype, pictured above, is made from clear acrylic, they will be manufactured from polymer-lined 5 mm-thick carbon fibre in the finished model.
The lightweight lithium-polymer hybrid fuel cell that converts the hydrogen gas into electricity to power the rotors was developed by a sister company, called Horizon Energy Systems.
“By removing the design silos that typically separate the energy storage component from UAV frame development, we opened up a whole new category in the drone market, in-between battery and combustion engine systems,” said Wankewycz.
The HUS was launched this year to merge the energy systems coming from HES with UAV platforms built from the ground up.
One of the key advertised benefits of this novel quadcopter is its low operational costs: at just $5/kWh for industrial hydrogen, one flight could cost only around $7.50, providing yet another reason to be enthusiastic about the future of drone delivery systems.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims said: “Drones are a special case of the limitations of current energy storage technology because, even more than in cars and other gadgets, there is a direct penalty for adding more batteries—the drone becomes heavier.”
Researchers hope that as the new HUS Hycopter hits the market later this year (no word on the pricing yet), hydrogen fuel cell technology, currently plagued by cost and production sustainability issues, will draw more attention and possibly even get a boost in funding.
Wankewycz claims the flying prototype is almost ready to go and should make its first flight in mere month to come. The company is already taking pre-orders from interested parties.