Fuel Cell UAV Flies Record 48 Hours
Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory flew their fuel cell powered Ion Tiger UAV for 48 hours and 1 minute on April 16-18 by using liquid hydrogen fuel in a new, NRL-developed, cryogenic fuel storage tank and delivery system. This flight shatters their previous record of 26 hours and 2 minutes set in 2009 using the same vehicle, but with gaseous hydrogen stored at 5000 psi. Liquid hydrogen is three times denser than 5000-psi compressed hydrogen. The cryogenic liquid is stored in a lightweight tank, allowing more hydrogen to be carried onboard to increase flight endurance. Success in flight requires developing a high quality, lightweight insulated flight dewar for the cryogenic fuel, plus matching the boil off of the cryogenic hydrogen to the vehicle fuel consumption.
"Liquid hydrogen coupled with fuel-cell technology has the potential to expand the utility of small unmanned systems by greatly increasing endurance while still affording all the benefits of electric propulsion," said Dr. Karen Swider-Lyons, NRL principal investigator.
Although long endurance is possible with conventional, hydrocarbon-fueled systems, these are usually loud, inefficient, and unreliable in this aircraft class. Similarly, small, electric, battery-powered systems are limited to endurances of only several hours.
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