Fuel cells extend flight time on drones

Kristian Oluf Sylvester-Hvid

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Fuel cells for drones

Fuel cells extend flight time on drones

Today we see three major technological challenges required to expand the potential of drones: safety, robustness and flight time. All three areas need solutions – preferably at the same time – if we want to utilize the full business potential of drones. At The Danish Technological Institute Nano- and Microtechnology, we work on solving the challenges on robustness and flight time by using fuel cells for new energy systems.

When we replace traditional batteries with fuel cells the drones are provided with more on-board energy for extended flight time. This paves the way for new types of possible tasks.

Read more about our work on fuel cells for consumer products.

Fuel cells can replace traditional batteries
Today battery power can keep a fixed-wing drone of 2-3 kg airborne for 2-3 hours. A multi-rotor drone will typically only stay in the air for less than 30 minutes. A larger battery pack is not the solution for extending flight time. It will be too heavy and take too much space away from the pay-load zone in the drone. What good is it to be able to fly an hour more if the camera – which justifies sending the drone on mission - lies at home on the desk? A drone basically is a flying robot where the sensor pack is creating the value and is of interest.

To meet these challenges, The Danish Technological Institute Nano- and Microtechnology develops small lightweight fuel cell systems that run on hydrogen, methanol or butane. In the near future this will allow long endurance flights for small drone systems. Despite an increase complexity of the energy system, the obvious advantage over batteries is that fuels with much higher gravimetric energy densities are employed:

- We work with fuel cell systems which e.g. converts hydrogen into electrical power as a possible solution to extending the flight time of drones. Hydrogen weighs far less than other energy carriers and is currently able to extend the flight time with 2-3 hours on small fixed-wing drones, “ tells Kristian Sylvester-Hvid, Senior Specialist at The Danish Technological Institute Nano- and Microtechnology.

The drone will be able to fulfill new missions
The Danish Technological Institute Nano- and Microtechnology is primarily focusing on extending the flight time of fixed-wing drones as these type of drones typically use about ten times less power than the multi-rotor drone. We cooperate with the Danish drone manufacturer Sky-Watch on a project involving hydrogen and butane. Our ultimate target is to reach a 24-hour flight time for a drone that weighs less than 3 kg.

By providing the drone with more on-board power, we can meet the industries' requirements for what a drone should be capable of. For example, the wish for using drones for environmental monitoring task in potentially remote areas, which demands that the drone can stay airborne for a day and still have enough power and space for advanced sensoric equipment.

Hear more about the work and watch the first test flight


Priority to drones
The Danish Technological Institute considers drones an enabling technology and thus several of our departments work with drones in different ways. For example, we develop advanced sensors for supporting precision farming, regulation that will make the drones more autonomous, 3D-printed skeletons and fuel tanks that will make the drones lighter and alternative energy systems for extending the flight time. Finally, we also make market reports and analysis of the Danish drone industry.

Please contact us for more information on our work.