Since 2009, the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute has partnered with the United States Naval Research Laboratory to develop and evaluate ultralight-weight fuel cell technologies to further extend UAV/UUV mission range and duration. Electric powered unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles (UAV and UUV) are becoming more widely available for both military and commercial applications. The market for UAVs, in particular, has skyrocketed in recent years and is projected to add 50-80 billion dollars to the economy over the next ten years. In addition to military applications like battlefield surveillance and communication networks, new commercial applications are being developed such as crop mapping and soil collection, infrastructure monitoring, and insurance assessments to name a few. The need for travel over significant distances and extended flying times is continually increasing. However, the major bottleneck remains the battery power system with manufacturers struggling to deliver battery packs which achieve high power to weight ratios. Hydrogen fuel cell based power systems offer an opportunity to drastically extend mission duration and range (up to 5-10 times) in lightweight, small packages, while maintaining the key strategic military advantages batteries provide over combustion powered engines.
Fuel cell powered unmanned vehicles are of particular interest to the Navy not only due to their improved mission endurance but also reduced noise and heat signatures, and increased efficiency. In the past nine years, NRL has leveraged the testing capabilities and fuel cell expertise of the Hawaii Sustainable Energy Research Facility (HiSERF) as part of a multi-year effort to develop new long endurance unmanned air vehicle and air independent unmanned undersea vehicle power systems. Engineers at HiSERF continue to work with NRL on leading edge fuel cell technologies focusing on a lower system weight while improving system and fuel efficiency.
Point Person: Jean St-Pierre
- UUV FCEPS Technology Assessment and Design Process, October 2006
- NRL UAV Ion Tiger program: https://www.nrl.navy.mil/lasr/content/ion-tiger-fuel-cell-powered-uav
- NRL fuel cell systems program: https://www.nrl.navy.mil/lasr/content/hydrogen-fuel-cell-stack-and-systems
- NAVSEA unmanned systems/UUV program roadmaps: http://www.navsea.navy.mil/Portals/103/Documents/Exhibits/SAS2017/Berkof-PEOLCS.pdf?ver=2017-04-03-155708-833
- NRL 3D printed UAV stack/NRL magazine articles: https://www.nrl.navy.mil/content_images/Spectra_Winter_2014.pdf
- NRL successful launch of fuel cell powered drone from submarine: https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2013/12/navy-launches-drone-submerged-submarine/75026/
- LDUUV-INP early ocean tests: https://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2015/04/lduuv-ocean-tests.html
- LDUUV-INP next generation development article: https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/uas/2017/03/29/next-gen-underwater-drone-boosts-naval-capabilities/
- XLUUV commercial vendor development: https://news.usni.org/2017/10/17/28810
Left: Ion Tiger fuel cell powered UAV. Courtesy: United States Naval Research Laboratory.
Right: Large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle - innovative naval prototype (LDUUV-INP). Courtesy: United States Naval Research Laboratory.