In a realm like a drone industry where almost everything is new, hydrogen-fuel drones are even newer.
The first hydrogen drone made for commercial use that we’re aware of was released just five years ago, in 2016. This was the HyDrone 1800, created by Chinese-based Micromulticopter Aero Technology (MMC).
Since then, more hydrogen fuel drones and hydrogen fuel cells made for drones have been released, with newer models achieving greater and greater enhancements.
Photo credit: MMC
But why are people making hydrogen fuel drones at all?
The main reason is that hydrogen fuel cells can keep a drone in the air a lot longer than LiPo batteries. But that’s just one of the reasons hydrogen fuel drones are an attractive alternative to LiPo or other power options, like gasoline.
Here are some of the major benefits of using hydrogen fuel cells to power a drone:
- Extended mission time and distance (usually about 3x that of LiPo batteries for the same weight)
- Can fly at higher altitudes than LiPo batteries
- Cleaner fuel source than LiPo and other alternatives
- Fuel cells produce no emissions and reduce or eliminate lithium battery disposal challenges and costs
- Refilling is quick and easy—usually takes about five minutes
[Related: 7 Benefits of Hydrogen Over LiPo Drones]
How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work?
Although hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance on Earth it hasn’t historically been a go-to power source, because converting it into power is hard.
To turn hydrogen into fuel, it must be separated from other elements, pressurized, and stored in a stable environment (without proper storage it could explode.) To make this concrete, a hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen fuel into electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen within the fuel cell and removing the byproduct of water.
Another roadblock to using hydrogen for fuel is that hydrogen fuel cells generate a high amount of heat—we’re talking temperatures high enough to melt the plastic components used in a regular drone.
But despite these drawbacks, there are some big benefits to using hydrogen fuel cells to power drones, as we saw above.
Hydrogen fuel cells have greater energy density than LiPo batteries, which means the same weight can generate more power, and this is why hydrogen drones can stay in the air so much longer than drones powered by LiPo batteries.
Top Hydrogen Fuel Drones on the Market
Below is our list of the top hydrogen fuel drones on the market right now.
Given how new hydrogen fuel cell technology is, only one drone on this list is made just for hydrogen power—that’s the Doosan DS30—while the others can be powered either by a LiPo battery or by a hydrogen fuel cell.
The Doosan DS30
The DS30 was designed by Doosan, who also makes hydrogen-powered helicopters and unmanned fixed-wing aircraft.
Photo credit: Doosan
The Doosan DS30 is the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell drone, which can operate for 2 hours on one fuel cell power pack. It also won the 2020 CES Best Innovation Award.
The drone features a semi-monocoque structure that reduces the weight of the octocopter configuration and improves durability. You can control the DS30 and monitor the hydrogen powerpack and flight controller information through the built-in communication module. Using web-based GCS or the DMI View app, pilots can plan autonomous mission flights, and get real-time status updates. The drone will also execute emergency landing when communication or hydrogen levels are insufficient.
Here are some specs and details for the Doosan DS30:
- Flight time of up to two hours
- Web/App based control
- Automated flights
- Interchangeable visual sensors
- Interchangeable hydrogen powerpack
- Easily transported vis SUV or van
- 5kg max payload
Visit the Doosan website to learn more about the DS30.
The HyDrone 1550 / Skylle 1550
The HyDrone 1550 is a hydrogen-powered hexacopter made by MMC that was first released in 2018, and was one of the first hydrogen drones on the market.
Photo credit: MMC
Based on our research, it appears that MMC has reconfigured the HyDrone 1550 so that it can be powered either by LiPo batteries or by hydrogen fuel cells. This new drone is being marketed as the Skylle 1550.
The HyDrone 1550—presumably what you would call the Skylle 1550 when outfitted with a hydrogen fuel cell—has been tested at altitudes of over 14,000 feet. In 2017, the HyDrone 1550 was used to rescue 3 people during a mission on Changbai Mountain near China’s northeastern border, an area where the extreme altitude and the low average temperature of -22F make operating with a LiPo drone impossible.
Long flight time and heavy payload UAV MMC SKYLLA 1550
Here are some specs and details for the HyDrone / Skylle 1550:
- 81 minute flight time with LiPo battery / 150 minutes with hydrogen fuel cell
- 12.5 mile communication link
- 26.5 lb. payload with payload plug and play
- Lightweight carbon fiber body
- Rain- and dust-proof
- Compatible with several camera types
- Comes with route planning for autonomous flight and GCS-controlled flight
Visit the MMC website to learn more about the Skylle 1550.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Providers for Drones
In addition to drone companies that make drones outfitted for hydrogen power, some companies have begun specializing in making hydrogen fuel cells just for drones.
Photo credit: Intelligent Energy
Here are the top hydrogen fuel cell providers for drones:
- Doosan Mobility Innovations—learn more about Doosan’s hydrogen fuel cells for drones here.
- Intelligent Energy—learn more about Intelligent Energy’s hydrogen fuel cells for drones here.
Hydrogen Fuel Drone Applications
Since hydrogen fuel can allow a drone to stay in the air much longer than a LiPo battery there are several applications that benefit from its use.
The majority of applications listed below involve long flights over large areas of land (or sea), either to gather aerial data or to make deliveries.
In agriculture, for example, aerial data is useful to help improve crop yield, while in power line inspections aerial data helps identify potential problem areas that may need maintenance. Although the details vary from one application to the next regarding why longer flight times can be helpful, each of these applications benefits from the ability to keep a drone in the air longer.
Photo credit: Flight Wave
In large commercial farming operations, hydrogen fuel drones can be crucial for gathering a greater quantity of aerial data for a piece of land in a shorter amount of time.
Similar to agriculture, hydrogen drones can be used in forestry to cover huge amounts of land to identify potential problem areas. Being able to keep a drone in the air longer while collecting aerial data reduces the amount of time spent on a mission and improve overall efficiency.
Longer flight times mean the ability to reach locations that are farther away, such as rural communities where medical care may be difficult to access.
Recently we heard about a successful medical delivery made using a hydrogen drone flying between St. Croix and St. Thomas in the Bahamas.
The flight was made over the open ocean and took over an hour and forty-three minutes. It was conducted using a hydrogen fuel cell from Doosan, in partnership with Guinn Partners and Skyfire Consulting. The drone still had an impressive 30 minutes of power remaining when it reached its destination.
Powerlines stretch out for miles and miles. This means that the longer a drone can stay in the air, the more quickly an inspection can be conducted. Enough said.
Search & Rescue
When trying to find a missing person every single minute counts.
That means that the longer a drone can stay in the air, the more valuable it is for the mission.
In addition to longer flight times, Search & Rescue can benefit from using hydrogen drones in high-altitude scenarios, in which LiPo drones can’t fly but hydrogen drones can.
The Future of Hydrogen Fuel Drones
The truth is that almost every industry currently using drones could benefit from having a drone that can stay in flight longer. Longer flights are more efficient, and improved efficiency means lower overall costs.
As the technology improves, prices will most likely continue to trend downward. We wouldn’t be surprised to see adoption grow for hydrogen fuel drones in the coming years, especially when for the applications listed above.
Do you think hydrogen fuel cells will catch on as a primary power source for drones? Let us know in this thread on our community forum.