Technology 3 min read

Hydrogen-powered Drone 'Hycopter' Stays in Flight for 4 Hours

Horizon Unmanned Systems's Hycopter is a hydrogen-powered drone that reduces weight by using the frame as fuel storage and far outpaces conventional drones.

Imagine how many kinds of sounds live out there in distant atmospheres. | NASA Images | Shutterstock.com

Imagine how many kinds of sounds live out there in distant atmospheres. | NASA Images | Shutterstock.com

A Singaporean company has developed a quadcopter drone that stores pressurized hydrogen in its frame rather than carrying the weight of a battery, an innovation that could increase drone autonomy and reduce overall costs.

After steam, coal, and electricity, hydrogen is one of the most promising clean energies of the future. Even when it’s derived from fossil fuels, as when methane is reformed to generate hydrogen while capturing CO2, emissions can be curbed with the onset of producing hydrogen fuels.

The third most abundant element on Earth, hydrogen seems to be the ideal route toward zero-emission, efficient transportation.

Thanks to #hydrogen #Hycopter #drone flies for 4 hoursClick To Tweet

The adoption of hydrogen as a fuel is already taking concrete steps in the automotive industry. In Japan, the government targets 40,000 hydrogen fuel cells to be powering cars on the road by 2020. To achieve that goal, major automakers (Toyota, Nissan and Honda) and power suppliers are collaborating to construct a network of hydrogen fueling stations.

Hydrogen can also be used for zero-emission trains, like the Coradia iLint, which was revealed last year by French Alstom in Germany.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered Drone

Besides cars and trains, hydrogen could equally provide a solution to battery autonomy problem in other industries, like mobile phones.

Horizon Unmanned Systems (HUS) is a Singapore-based startup, the foundational part of the H3 Dynamics Group.

HUS made headlines two years ago when it presented its record-breaking rotorcraft prototype powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

The hydrogen quadcopter, naturally called the Hycopter, operates on pressurized hydrogen stored in its tubular frame in conjunction with a fuel cell.

“With less lift power required, HYCOPTER’s ultra-light fuel cell turns the hydrogen in its frame into electricity to power its rotors. A first version of this system, HYCOPTER-1, [would have begun] shipment within Q4 2016 – Q1 2017,” said HUS.

Record-Breaking 4 Hours of Autonomy

To help the drone market to “take off”, the industry is pushing the boundaries of autonomy by making batteries increasingly smaller and lighter. But that approach, just like with microchips, can’t be sustained forever.

The focus will be more on power density, and in that regard hydrogen fuel cells are a top solution: power density of H2 fuel cells exceeds that of Li-Po batteries by a factor of 150.

Thanks to its hollow structure, Hycopter, weighing around 5 kilograms, stores power in the form of hydrogen, thus eliminating energy storage weight associated with battery-operated drones.

The originality of HES’ concept is in the exploitation of the empty space in the tubular structure of the drone–which, again is filled with hydrogen gas. The 4.2 ounces of hydrogen gas is converted into electricity via a lithium polymer hybrid fuel cell.

Multirotor drones currently in the consumer market have autonomy of 20 to 30 minutes at best. Commercial drones typically are much larger and carry huge batteries, making flight times a constant struggle for professionals.

Without a payload, HUS’s Hycopter can stay in the air for four consecutive hours, a flight time that gets reduced to 2.5 hours when carrying a 2.2-pound payload. To meet the needs of commercial-use drones and future delivery drones, the Hycopter will have to be scaled up. Still, the construction of the Hycopter is a promising development.

What kind of drone are you flying right now? Have you figured out any tricks to make it fly longer?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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  1. Siva November 25 at 12:35 am GMT

    U.S. DOD contractors are also looking in to hydrogen electric AC-130 gunship with four electric props. Much lower noise signature and longer range.

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