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Endurance record is surpassed for small electric UAV

11 May 2013

Researchers at the US 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.

The NRL flight crew holds the Ion Tiger unmanned aerial vehicle (photo: US Naval Research Laboratory)
The NRL flight crew holds the Ion Tiger unmanned aerial vehicle (photo: US Naval Research Laboratory)

With the benefit of 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 5,000psi.

Liquid hydrogen is three times denser than 5,000psi 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-fuelled 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.

To address the logistics of in-theatre supply of liquid or gaseous hydrogen, NRL proposes in-situ manufacture of liquid hydrogen for use as fuel. An electrolyser-based system would require only water for feedstock, and electricity, possibly from solar or wind, to electrolyse, compress, and refrigerate the fuel.

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