And, as it turns out, hydrogen may be the key ingredient in a perfect recipe to keep drones in the air for longer periods of time. On Dec. 15, British firm Intelligent Energy announced a hydrogen-fuel-cell power extender specifically designed for drones. The company says it will officially unveil the prototype at CES 2016, January 6-9 in Las Vegas and that the extender will offer several hours of flight time for drones as opposed to the typical range of 15-30 minutes for many UAV models.
“Drones are one of the most exciting new technologies. Even with advanced batteries their value is limited. For commercial use, they need to offer better flight times and range,” Julian Hughes, Group Business Development Director and Acting Managing Director for Intelligent Energy’s Consumer Electronics Division, said in a press release.
“That will all become possible with the release of our range extender platform. A longer flight time coupled with a quick re-fuel opens a wide range of new commercial possibilities,” he added. “Given we also have the ability to tailor solutions to customer requirements, this could completely revolutionize the potential of drone technology.”
The company has already worked with Boeing Phantom Works in developing a manned hydrogen-fueled aircraft. IE has tested drones with both the new fuel cell and a hydrogen/LiPo hybrid system.
“Although FAA visual-line-of-sight rules limit how far away drones can fly, they don’t limit how long, and time in the air is becoming increasingly relevant as the industry migrates from consumer to commercial use,” said 3D Robotics founder and CEO Chris Anderson in a recent Verge report. “For consumers, simply swapping batteries is an acceptable solution to limited battery life. But commercial users, who may be doing high-resolution mapping or scanning, which requires low-speed paths back and forth over an area, the ability to stay in the air for an hour or more can turn what might be many missions into one.”
Hydrogen as a drone fuel source is not a new concept. In May, Horizon Unmanned Systems (HUS) unveiled the Hycopter drone – a model that runs on a lightweight hydrogen fuel cell that company officials say will deliver up to 4 hours of flight time unloaded, and 2.5 hours when it’s carrying 2.2 pounds of cargo.