AUS pilots hydrogen fuel cell-powered drone flight

Researchers say the long-endurance flight is first outside North America

Staff Report
19:00 October 14, 2016

Sharjah: A team of researchers at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) successfully conducted a hydrogen fuel cell-powered multi-rotor drone flight last week, said to be the first flight of its kind outside North America.

Fuel cell-powered multi-rotor drones are capable of flying for many hours as compared to the traditional battery-powered drones with flight endurance of just 15 to 20 minutes.

The test flight, which took place in front of the AUS main building, was conducted to demonstrate the feasibility of using a hydrogen fuel cell in multi-rotor drones.

The drone used is powered by Proton Exchange Membrane hydrogen fuel cell (PEMFC) and is able to maintain steady hover and forward flight.

Hydrogen fuel cells create electricity by decomposing hydrogen while producing water as exhaust. Fuel cells are attractive as power systems because of their high-energy density, which allows longer endurance. With the current fuel cell technology, fuel cells can power drones, as demonstrated by the test flight, to provide a low-cost alternative to many services.

The AUS research team includes Dr Mohammad Gadalla, professor in Mechanical Engineering, as the research team leader; Dr Sayem Zafar, a laboratory instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and John Mempin, a research technician and certified pilot.

Dr Gadalla said the long-endurance drone has many applications, “namely for parcel delivery, health care, first aid, border patrol, infrastructure inspection, survey applications, rescue, media, educational or environmental study”.

Dr Zafar said the event marked “the first-ever outdoor flight of hydrogen fuel drone flight with vertical take-off and landing capability. Only two other companies have done it before, and that was indoors only. This is a huge leap forward towards more electric aircraft. The flight performs operational tasks, which makes it unique and a practically usable drone”.

The same team at AUS had earlier conducted what it called the first-ever fixed wing hydrogen fuel cell drone flight in the UAE and GCC in August 2015.