Hydrogen-powered fuel cells proposed to keep drones in the air longer

Endurance could be a major hindrance to drone adoption. One company thinks it has the answer: fuel cells.

FAA drone rules registration hydrogen fuel cells power drones UAVs

A DJI drone with Intelligent Energy fuel cell and tank attached.

Credit: Intelligent Energy

One of the primary limitations in drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), development is power. Battery technology isn't ideal because batteries are heavy, limiting drone payload. That weight hinders lift.

And batteries are not very efficient. They are prone to quick depletion—no different to how a smartphone won't go for days without a boost. Motors use power, consequently limiting a drone's range, or what's called "endurance."

So, what's a dot-com to do? Just how does one deliver all of those packages, all day long, if the batteries need re-charging after 40 minutes?

Hydrogen

One company thinks it has the answer—hydrogen fuel cells combined with battery.

Intelligent Energy says that it has developed a prototype of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered range extender, specifically for drones.

Portable cartridges

The company has already been active in the market for portable hydrogen cartridges for consumers, with small, portable fuel cell systems that it says can compete with batteries.

Intelligent Energy's fuel cells "offer lighter and smaller solutions compared to batteries where the power is low and the energy required is high," it says on its website. That makes the technology suitable for drones.

More flight time

By combining a very lightweight fuel cell stack with a battery, range could be "up to several hours of drone flight time rather than the typical 20 minutes maximum flight times seen today," the company said in a press release about the announcement.

A secondary advantage the company suggested is a reduction in downtime. Recharging could take several hours, whereas a fuel cell hybrid solution could get the process down to a couple of minutes, the company claims.

Reducing downtime isn't just going to be important for commercial operation, such as deliveries. Capturing video with no interruptions can be important for the film industry. As can a search and rescue mission without breaks.

Changing batteries

However, some active drone users today simply change batteries periodically.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department in California uses a UAV for search and rescue missions, which can operate 24/7 with two-minute battery changes every 40 minutes by using multiple batteries, Commander Christopher Dunn of the agency said during a panel (unrelated to Intelligent Energy's announcement) at International Drone Expo last week.

Personal fuel cells

While Intelligent Energy's idea is to use a hybrid installation, it has experience in solo micro fuel cells too.

Upp a portable fuel cell system that Intelligent Energy is marketing separately, provides instant USB power from hydrogen cartridges with a 10-year life span. One fuel cartridge gives about the equivalent of five smartphone charges. That product is already available in the UK. 

Extender hydrogen power

"Drones are one of the most exciting new technologies currently, but even with advanced batteries their value is limited. For commercial use they need to offer better flight times and range," Julian Hughes of Intelligent Energy said in the press release.

Hence the hydrogen and battery combo range extender platform.

Unrelated to Intelligent Energy's announcement, when asked what active public safety agencies were looking for in drone design at the IDE search and rescue panel, Dunn said it was endurance.

"The more time up the better," he said. "Endurance is huge." 

He added that their operations were limited by 40-minute battery sessions, and that they needed more time in the air.

If that's indeed the case, Intelligent Energy may well have a market.

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