Ballard sells first fuel cell propulsion systems for civilian drone application

UA Alpha drone, FlyH2 Aerospace’s flagship remotely piloted aircraft. Image: CNW Group/Ballard Power Systems Inc.

Vancouver’s Ballard Power Systems has sold its first fuel cell propulsion systems for civilian drone application, for uses such as monitoring of physical infrastructure like pipelines, roads and bridges.

Ballard’s Southborough, Massachusetts-based subsidiary Protonex received an initial order this week for its fuel cell propulsion system, together with design services, from FlyH2 Aerospace, a South African-based developer of hydrogen fuel cell powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for commercial applications.

FlyH2 plans to integrate the Protonex fuel cell system into all three of its aircraft now in the development pipeline, beginning with the UA Plant prototype drone, followed by its UA Alpha flagship aircraft. UA Plant is expected to be a 30 kilogram (66 pounds) fuel cell-powered agricultural utility aircraft with nine-hour flight endurance.

UA Alpha will be a long-range, long-endurance survey and reconnaissance aircraft designed to carry advanced sensors. With a wingspan of 8.2 metres (27 feet) and maximum cruising altitude of 4,250 metres (14,000 feet) and a flight distance of more than 600 kilometres (370 miles), it will survey environmental variables used in the management of fires, pollution, erosion, alien vegetation and plant diseases.

FlyH2's third drone, the UA Gecko, is being designed to monitor physical infrastructure such as pipelines.

“When combined with improved reliability and other advantages over internal combustion systems, fuel cells are proving to be a high value fit for UAVs. These will be the first civilian drones that we have powered, in addition to our work on military UAVs with several global aerospace customers," Paul Osenar, president of Protonex said in a statement.

Fuel cell propulsion systems allow for endurances comparable to an internal combustion engine but with several added benefits, said Ballard, including silent operation, increased reliability, lower vibration and less maintenance. The total cost of ownership is also expected to be lower and the aircraft will only require one fuel stop per day for all-day operations.