Hydrogen-Powered Drone Can Take off and Land Vertically

This drone can sustain flight for hours over the open sea and land vertically on ship decks.

This hydrogen-powered drone can take off and land vertically. (Photo courtesy of TU Delft.)

This hydrogen-powered drone can take off and land vertically. (Photo courtesy of TU Delft.)

A new hydrogen-powered drone can successfully take off and land vertically. 

The sustainable drone is designed to fly over both land and sea for long periods of time under strenuous conditions. Traditional drones typically utilize fossil fuels to increase range and endurance, but these aren’t necessarily the most sustainable options. However, existing drones that do use sustainable energy are still limited by low speeds and are incapable of landing vertically. They are also restricted by the use of wings in order to fly long distances efficiently, which subsequently require additional facilities (such as a runway or net) just to land.

The drone developed by TU Delft in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Netherlands Coastguard is powered by a 300-bar, 6.8-liter carbon composite hydrogen cylinder. This cylinder pumps out hydrogen at a low pressure to an 800-watt fuel cell, which then converts it into electricity for its 12 motors. In addition to that, the drone is also equipped with a set of batteries that give it extra power when performing vertical takeoff and landing.The drone is fully electric and weighs approximately 13 kilograms with a wingspan of three meters. The 12 motors on board ensure that it can still land safely even when one or two of the motors suddenly fail or are damaged.

Vertical capability is particularly necessary for densely populated areas or the open seas, allowing the aircraft to land on buildings or the afterdeck of a ship. However, this can drain significant amounts of power from the battery, which is why it’s still a function that’s not too common. Sustainable drones can be incredibly beneficial should they surpass these challenges, allowing them to travel for long distances over land and water while being able to land virtually anywhere.

“That is why we developed a drone that can take off and land vertically using hydrogen plus a battery set, and that during the horizontal hydrogen-powered flight can recharge the battery via a fuel cell, ready for the vertical landing,” shared Bart Remes, project manager at the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVLab) of TU Delft. “The fixed-wing design and the use of hydrogen means the drone can fly horizontally for hours at a time.”

Flying over sea also presents unique challenges that aren’t usually encountered when flying over land. That’s because there are more dynamic conditions to take into account, such as wind, salt water, and a moving ship with limited takeoff and landing facilities. To meet these demands, the hydrogen was tested via a wind tunnel as well as on the vessels of the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Netherlands Coastguard, which sailed along the Dutch coast.

Because of the wings, the hydrogen cylinder, and the battery, the hydrogen drone managed to sustain flight for over 3.5 hours over open sea. According to TU Delft, this will make it the perfect candidate for reconnaissance and inspection tasks.

Pieter Blank, a commander under the Royal Netherlands Navy and Netherlands Coastguard, also shared their enthusiasm for the collaboration: “Introducing new technologies demands a more exploratory approach than we are used to. The current generation of young people grow up in this way of learning and experimenting, and for us, they are our personnel of the future. This is why we are making every effort to work together with others to create operational applications for these technologies.”

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