The current generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) generally flies electrically, powered by batteries. Especially for cargo drones that are built to carry heavy loads, this severely limits their range. Manufacturer and operator, Wingcopter, is now moving into the next stage of development by using hydrogen to power its Wingcopter 198 drone variant. It could be a breakthrough in drone utilization.
To realize the project, Wingcopter has joined forces with the Hamburg-based drone developer, ZAL - Center of Applied Aeronautical Research GmbH, located in direct neighborhood to the facilities
of aircraft manufacturer, Airbus. Both project partners intend to explore the potential of green hydrogen stemming from wind farms to propel Wingcopter’s drone model 198, its technically most
advanced product. Provided the test series is successful, Wingcopter intends to produce the propulsion system itself and equip its delivery drones with the technique.
Once refitted and powered by hydrogen, the Wingcopter 198 will fly carbon emissions free and substantially extend its range.
The modification of the UAV will take place at ZAL’s Fuel Cell Lab in Hamburg. This is a powerhouse for developing drone technology as proven by the company’s own ZALbatros hydrogen drone, which is able to achieve a flight duration of over two hours, after engineers succeeded in enhancing its technical and operational abilities. This also makes the ZALbatros a pioneer for the Wingcopter drone, that will be equipped with comparable technology.
Roland Gerhards, CEO of ZAL GmbH, states that his company’s mission is “to bring hydrogen into the air and create innovative solutions for sustainable aviation. With Wingcopter as our partner, we're not only impressed by their drones' flight performance, but also by their clear vision of how urban air mobility and especially drone delivery can help improve people's lives. This aligns perfectly with ZAL's values. With our expertise, we want to convert the Wingcopter to hydrogen and thus strengthen the Hamburg UAM network, Windrove, with another flagship project.”
Established in 2017, the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) project promotes the commercial use of drones in the metropolitan region of Germany’s second largest city (4.5 million inhabitants). The city is home to numerous established industries, such as logistics, aviation, and renewable energies, where the use of commercial drones makes a lot of sense. A key target pursued by Windrove is to achieve acceptance and safe integration of automated flight in urban airspace.
Flying cleaner and further
The combined technical know-how and the company's targets in UAV development have obviously led Wingcoper to cooperate with ZAL.
This is confirmed by Wingcopter co-founder and CEO, Tom Plümmer: “We have always wanted the Wingcopter to be able to fly even further. However, we categorically ruled out the installation of a conventional combustion engine right from the start, with a view to the environment and climate change. We are happy to now explore technical possibilities in the field of hydrogen propulsion together with the ZAL experts and then put the best concept into practice.”
We spoke with Holger Kuhn (HK), Senior Expert Fuel Cell of the ZAL, and Jonathan Hesselbarth (JH), CTO Wingcopter, about the time horizon of the technical measures to obtain the flight permit.
CFG: What technical changes are required to convert the drone to hydrogen propulsion?
HK: The fuel cell system will largely be accommodated in the space where the batteries are installed. The task here is to find a suitable (new) arrangement of all components in terms of space requirements and center of gravity. The integration solution is currently in progress: the fuel cell system as well as the tank should be integrated into the existing Wingcopter in such a way that the structural impact is minimal and it is still possible to use the aerodynamic delivery box. At this point in time, we are unable to provide further technical specifics.
CFG. What is the timeframe for the Wingcopter drone upgrade? When is the company's first hydrogen-powered UAV expected to fly and be commercially operational?
JH: The maiden flight is part of this project and scheduled for this year. However, commercial deployment depends on downstream regulatory approval (FAA, EASA).
CFG: Doesn’t the deployment of hydrogen-powered drones require an ecosystem for refueling/recharging the UAVs? How do things stand at present?
HK: The ZAL TechCenter has its own hydrogen tank with which tests can be carried out at our site. Alternatively, bundles of gas cylinders can be provided by suppliers such as Linde, Air Products, etc. Here, however, the drone operator must identify the most suitable use case.
For operations in remote areas, there are currently developments to provide hydrogen on site to solve the refueling problem. However, this issue still needs to be analyzed in detail on a case-by-case basis. At ZAL, this topic will also be addressed in the future.
JH: An option is to establish an automated ground station for storing drones and refueling them with hydrogen.
CFG: It is said that the range of the Wingcopter can be increased from 70' to 140' by hydrogen propulsion, thus doubling the flight time and therefore potential range. Is that correct?
HK: This is correct. Currently, Wingcopter 198 has a flight time of 70 minutes with a 5 kg payload.
JH: We have jointly set ourselves the goal of doubling the flight time and thus also the range with the same payload, in order to again significantly increase the use and use cases of the Wingcopter. This seems realistic.
CFG: What new / practical application possibilities arise from hydrogen propulsion?
JH: One use case, for example, would be emergency deliveries in very rural areas that are currently too far away for Wingcopter 198. Another very interesting possibility is the supply of offshore wind farms by drone.
CFG: Thank you for the explanations.
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