Five reasons why fuel cell powered UAVs beat internal combustion fuel systems

Image: Insitu

Test flights of a Ballard Power Systems’ fuel cell system aboard a Boeing Company unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) have shown a number of advantage to fuel cell propulsion over traditional internal combustion engine propulsion systems, the company reported this week.

Ballard subsidiary Protonex successfully powered test flights of the ScanEagle UAV, manufactured by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, using its proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell propulsion system.

Insitu’s ScanEagle has been used in oil and gas applications like oil spill tracking and ice floe monitoring for ConocoPhillips in the Arctic.

Ballard pointed to a number of advantages to fuel cell propulsion of UAVs:

1. Improvement in the expected mean time between failures of up to five times.

2. Silent operation that will enable mission routes that take the ScanEagle closer to its targets.

3. 100 per cent throttle flexibility, including mid-air start-stop capability.

4. Use of existing JP8 fuel in ground refueling systems.

5. Power during flight that can be used to support greater payload diversity.

"These test flights have successfully demonstrated the integration and operation of our fuel cell propulsion system as well as the high pressure hydrogen fuel tank," Paul Osenar, president of Protonex, said in a statement. “When combined with improved reliability and other advantages over internal combustion systems, fuel cells are proving to be a tremendous fit for UAVs."

Insitu's ScanEagle is a versatile platform with multiple payload capabilities, including high-definition imaging at a fraction of the cost of larger UAV systems, the company said. With a wingspan of 3.11 metres and maximum takeoff weight of 22 kilograms, the ScanEagle can fly at a maximum speed of 80 knots, reach a ceiling of 5,944 metres and has an endurance capability of more than 24-hours.

It has logged over 800,000 flight hours in military and civilian applications, making it one of the most successful UAV platforms to date. Additional performance tests and customer demonstrations are planned throughout the remainder of this year.