Horizon is on the fuel-cell frontier for UAVs

  • 31-Aug-2010 09:20 EDT
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Horizon’s AEROPAK stores 900 W·h of usable electrical energy (nominal power of 200 W, peak power of 500 W) and weighs 4.4 lb.

Horizon Energy Systems of Singapore is beginning commercial sales of its AEROPAK hydrogen-fuel-cell power system that, it claims, can extend by up to 300% the flight duration of today’s battery-operated 5-10-kg-class mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). For years, Horizon says, UAV fuel-cell applications have been restricted to the domain of research in defense laboratories around the world.

"The AEROPAK is no longer a proof-of-concept, a bench-top demonstrator, or a one-off working prototype,” said Gareth Tang, Managing Director of Horizon Energy Systems. “It is a field-tested airborne system with a high degree of reliability, and we are already taking orders from a number of world-leading UAV market participants.”

AEROPAK enters the market as the most energy-dense electric power system available in the world, according to the company. The timing is right. Horizon cites a 2010 Teal Group study projecting worldwide UAV-related spending will more than double over the next decade to $11.5 billion annually for a total of just over $80 billion in the next 10 years. G2 Solutions forecasts a $1B acquisition market over the next 10 years, with more than 27,000 small UAVs entering service worldwide.

Battery-powered electric motors only allow mini UAVs to stay aloft for an hour or two, but Horizon says its technology enables the same mini UAVs to stay aloft for 8 to 10 h at a time without increasing take-off weight. This capability offers the possibility of conducting multiple missions in a single take-off, which reduces casualty risk or the possibility of compromising tactical formations in the field while saving significantly on logistical and operational costs.

The use of UAVs is increasing because the persistent intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities they bring are unmatched, according to Horizon. In the 5-10-kg class segment, smaller man-portable mini UAVs have proven easier and faster to deploy, making them suitable for close-range surveillance.

Small enough to be carried in a backpack, mini UAVS can be assembled in minutes and hand-launched. With constantly evolving new technologies, these small and lower cost UAVs are also taking on increasingly complex missions previously performed by larger and more expensive manned or unmanned aircraft. Over the past decade, hand-launched drones have proven so useful that the U.S. military has bought more than 12,000 of them.

The AEROPAK integrates Horizon’s proton-exchange-membrane fuel-cell technology with easy-to-use dry-fuel cartridges. Storing 900 W·h of usable electrical energy (nominal power of 200 W, peak power of 500 W) and weighing just 4.4 lb, the all-inclusive AEROPAK is simple, reliable, and can be fully operational in minutes without assembly tools, the company says. The long-lasting and nonflammable energy source is packed dry in water-activated cartridges, eliminating the need for cumbersome battery chargers or the risk of carrying fully charged backup batteries into the battlefield.

At 1.5 g/W, the fuel-cell system is the world’s best in terms of power density, according to Horizon. PEM fuel-cell stack, cooling fans, and an electronic card integrated in a compact system casing comprise the AEROPAK.

Taras Wankewycz, the Founder of Horizon, told AEM of another advantage his company’s system offers.

“There are a lot of power-hungry devices on board UAS. The only reason there aren’t any more electronics on board small UAS is because of the limitations of today’s batteries. With fuel cells such as the AEROPAK, this can all increase, which means manufacturers/contractors can make more units of smaller, cheaper planes with capability similar to much larger, much more expensive aircraft. The AEROPAK can change the landscape of the UAS market by shifting an increasing number of strategic missions to smaller, more portable, and lower cost systems.”

For UAV manufacturers, changing to AEROPAK will not necessarily mean changing their aircraft, Horizon says, because the miniaturized power system makes it easy to use as a drop-in replacement for battery packs currently in service, eliminating costly airframe modifications.

Horizon recently announced that it has incorporated its AEROPAK into Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bird Eye 650 UAV. Compared to the same UAV using lithium batteries, flight time is more than doubled to 6 h.

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