As drone manufacturers search for power sources that will enable drones to fly for multiple hours — and without fears of potentially dangerous Lipo batteries — drone companies are capitalizing on the rise of hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen fuel cells, which have recently rose to the mainstream vernacular for their increased testing in consumer products such as cars, are looking to make their way into more drones.
Hydrogen fuel cells are a pollution-free form of power, converting hydrogen to electricity while leaving behind nothing but water and heat. They’re environmentally friendly, allow for long flight times and can last a longer lifespan than traditional batteries, which has commercial-grade drone companies hopping on the wagon.
“Typically the energy density of hydrogen fuel cells compared to a battery is 3-4x the amount of flight time compared to Lipo batteries,” said Callie Mortimer, Director of Business Development at FlightWave Aerospace Systems. “The longer drones can fly, it makes a massive difference to what many companies are trying to achieve.”
Related read: 15 things every Lipo battery user should know
That means drones can not only fly longer distances, but also fly in rural areas where it is otherwise difficult to charge batteries.
FlightWave Aerospace Systems, Inc displayed its Jupiter drone, which uses a lightweight 650-W Fuel Cell Power Module, prominently at the AUVSI 2018 conference this week in Colorado.
The drone can actually be powered by either a battery pack or hydrogen, and the methods of power can be swapped out fairly easily. The drone was created in partnership with another company, Intelligent Energy, which is responsible for designing the power module.
How does a hydrogen fuel cell on a drone work?
While a battery stores power in the form of electrical energy, fuel cells are different, said Julian Hughes, Senior Vice President at Intelligent Energy Inc.
“The fuel cell doesn’t store electrical power,” he said. “It produces electricity by using hydrogen. The energy density of a fuel cell is a lot different than a battery, which means it will last longer.”
Whereas the standard drone today flies for about 20-30 minutes via a Lipo battery, an equivalent drone could fly for about an hour using a hydrogen fuel cell, Hughes said.
What are the effects on the environment?
“The only byproduct of the fuel cell is a chemical reaction between hydrogen and the oxygen in the air, producing a small amount of heat and water vapor, and it’s silent apart from a small fan.”
Related read: How to tell if you have overcharged Lipo batteries
If fuel cells are so great, then why aren’t we using them over Lipo batteries?
The big roadblock here is cost, and experts predict that fuel cells won’t come down in cost to a consumer price point anytime soon.
FlightWave says the upfront cost of hydrogen fuel cells is about 7x more than what a traditional drone battery would cost. (The Jupiter drone costs in the $10,000 range.)
But experts say that while the capital cost is a lot greater than a battery, over the life of a fuel cell, they are more comparable.
Of course, there is good news.
“We’re only just starting,” Hughes said. “With economies of scale, we could get to that point (where fuel cells are low-cost enough to appear in all drones, not just commercial-grade ones).”
Another roadblock? Accessibility. You can’t have hydrogen shipped to you via Amazon Prime Now, the way you could have a DJI Smart battery shipped to you in just a few minutes.
What’s taken so long to put hydrogen fuel cells on drones into the mainstream?
The short answer: technology just hasn’t been there until now.
Fuel cells are typically extremely heavy, so it has taken a feat of engineering to make them light enough for them to reasonably fly onboard a drone.
FlightWave says it has a proprietary solution to make the fuel cell a lot lighter based on the batteries used.
Though, Intelligent Energy’s module isn’t 100% all fuel cell yet.
“Fuel cells don’t deal with peaks well,” Hughes said. In cases of take-off, wind resistance or other harsh conditions, the power pack does rely on a Lipo battery as well.
Related read: How to care for your Lipo batteries
The partnership between FlightWave and Intelligent Energy was first announced at last year’s Interdrone conference, but the companies are pushing their marketing efforts as the drone becomes available later this year.
The 650W Fuel Cell Power Module is FCC compliant. Compatible with a variety of modules, it can be used as as a standalone product rather than exclusively with FlightWave’s Jupiter drone and is available today.