Lithium batteries provide relatively short duration flights and are restricted on most commercial airlines; internal combustion engines create air and noise pollution. Are hydrogen fuel cells going to provide the best option?
From an article in sUAS News.
Like batteries, fuel cells are a source of DC power, and are clean and quiet. Unlike batteries, their power comes from converting a fuel—hydrogen—into energy. Unlike batteries they provide greater power output for longer. For drone operators, using fuel cells means more flying time.
Fuel cells by the numbers:
- triple the energy density of batteries
- 2-3 times longer flying time
- In a multi-rotor drone, where a battery might last 20 minutes, a fuel cell would last 90 minutes or longer.
- In a fixed-wing drone, where a battery might run for four hours, a fuel cell could last 12-15 hours.
Why choose hydrogen fuel cells?
Clean electric power: hydrogen fuels are emission-free in operation. They can be zero-emission across the supply chain, if the hydrogen is generated from renewable energy.
Quiet in operation: A fuel cell drone is as quiet and vibration-free as a battery-powered drone, making it useful for filming, surveillance and other vibration and noise-sensitive applications.
Logistically easier: Fuel cell drones require no battery spares/storage/recharging etc.
Reliable and durable: Fuel cell maintenance is far less than internal combustion engines or battery power. Minor maintenance is required after 1000 to 1200 hours in service, and after 2000 hours the fuel cell is replaced.
The initial purchase price of batteries is lower—but when the total operating costs are considered, the economic picture changes.
Factor in longer airtime—in a profession where airtime is where revenue is generated—and fuel cells become the far more practical and profitable choice.
The business case for hydrogen fuel cells in commercial drone operations:
Higher upfront investment, but lower long-term operating costs
The initial purchase price of a fuel cell power system is higher than batteries or internal combustion engines.
However, a fuel cell system costs less to operate: reliability is greater than internal combustion engines, and there’s no need for spare batteries and the entire battery charging/storage infrastructure.
Do the same job with fewer drones:
With more flying time per drone, a business can reduce their fleet size by 30-40%, compared to using a battery platform.
Longer airtime, more potential applications:
Fuel cell drones have the quiet, clean characteristics of battery-powered drones, with triple (or more) flying time. This opens drones to many new potential applications, and makes many current uses more profitable.
Less field service, fewer spares, less staff required to operate
With the reliability of electric motors, and the extended flying time of fuel cells, operators will find they can do the job with fewer stops and starts, fewer inspections, fewer parts swaps—and keep more drones in the air with less field staff.
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