Green Gadgets | January 10, 2011 |
The Exciting Potential of Fuel Cell-Powered UAVs
In addition to this plethora of applications, fuel cells also offer the potential to significantly enhance the operational capabilities for 5-10kg man-portable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Such vehicles have proven their worth as a powerful force multiplier and offer real-time tactical advantages in terms of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering for soldiers operating on the ground.
According to G2 solutions, a Seattle-based market research firm specializing in the aerospace and defense industries, “The use of pervasive UAS (unmanned aerial systems) is increasing because the persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities they bring are unmatched.” The advantages of man-portable UAVs include a reduced acoustic signature and their small physical size. Over the next 10 years, analysts expect the acquisition market for these specialized UAVs to exceed $44 billion in the U.S. alone.
Fuel cells have subsequently been recognized as a critical component in the future-evolution of man-portable UAVs. According to Ron Stearns of G2 Solutions, “Fuel cells have the potential to improve the size, weight, and power configuration for tactical UAV propulsion, leading to increased UAV endurance or expanded sensor and/or communications-relay capabilities.” With a smaller, more flexible and cost effective fuel cell power solution, man-portable UAVs will undertake more sophisticated missions including persistent surveillance, reconnaissance, patrol and convoy escort, and other specified roles.
There are subsequently a number of companies working closely alongside the various branches of the U.S. military with the goal of integrating fuel cells into the current fleet of man-portable UAVs. Some examples include:
- Adaptive Materials is currently developing solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) powered by kerosene, diesel, the Navy’s JP-5, and the Army’s JP-8 logistic fuel for use in man-portable UAVs. In November 2008, Adaptive Materials and the University of Michigan achieved and record-breaking unmanned aircraft flight. Their plane, named Endurance flew for 10 hours, 15 minutes and 4 seconds in a flight that lasted from sunrise to sunset on Oct. 30 2008.
- In June 2009, Horizon Energy Systems announced that its AEROPAK fuel cell system, a hydrogen proton exchange membrane (PEM) system, will increase the flight endurance of man-portable UAVs by as much as 300 percent. The system was recently tested for durability onboard both an Elbit Systems Skylark I-LE UAV in Israel, and a CIAM-80 mini UAV in Russia. In November, A RemoEye-006 UAV from South Korean manufacturer, Uconsystem, powered by Horizon’s AEROPAK system flew for approximately 5 hours with additional fuel left over after landing.
- In October, Jaddo Power announced that its lightweight fuel cell system had performed well after successfully powering a Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Mako UAV payload and avionics in Arizona.
Fuels cells present the most feasible solution to improving the range and capabilities of man-portable UAVs. Each of the tests conducted so far by fuel cell manufacturers and defense agencies has demonstrated vast improvements in UAV flight time with additional benefits associated with an enhanced energy density offered by fuel cell technologies. The remarkable growth forecast for this industry and the proven benefits afforded by fuel cells suggest positive developments for the near future.
Euan Sadden is a research analyst contributing to Pike Research’s fuel cells and smart energy practices.