Hydrogen powered drone exceeds one hour of continuous flight

A UK team has developed a hydrogen powered drone that has achieved a flight time of 70 minutes while carrying a 5kg payload.

Hydrogen powered drone
(Credit: Project Rachel)

Funded by Innovate UK, Project Rachel is led by Coventry-based engineering company Productiv on behalf of UAV filming specialists BATCAM. The multirotor UAV is powered by fuel cells from Intelligent Energy, which specialises in lightweight and energy dense fuel cell stacks for commercial UAVs. The 70-minute flight was performed by a UAV with below 20kg maximum take-off mass, using a 6-litre cylinder containing hydrogen gas compressed to 300 bar. Lithium battery powered drones used by BATCAM typically last around 12 minutes before they require recharging.  

“The effectiveness of UAVs is limited by their flight time and payload capacity,” said Productiv’s Jonathan Reed. “This innovation opens up new opportunities for commercial UAV operators.

“Operators need longer flight times than can be delivered with batteries and are therefore seeking alternative power sources with higher power density. Hydrogen power has huge potential here, and we anticipate a significant growth in the market for hydrogen-powered UAVs in the next few years.”

Now that the hour-long flight target has been achieved, the next stage of Project Rachel will see the hydrogen powered drone put through its paces in real-world tests. Sectors that could benefit from the technological development include mining, agriculture, surveying and monitoring, security, and emergency services. Having already designed the fuel cell stack, Intelligent Energy is now commissioning and trialling a portable refuelling solution from NanoSUN, a specialist supplier of hydrogen fuel systems.

“At Intelligent Energy we are committed to helping our UAV customers solve the problem of flight time,” said CEO David Woolhouse. “We welcome this Innovate UK funded project as it further embeds the integration of fuel cell technology for the benefit of the industry.

“The advantages of fuel cells over batteries for our customers are clear; fast refuel, no vibration, quiet operation, zero emission at point of use and three times more flight time than batteries. Fuel cells are a game-changer for the commercial UAV market.”