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Hydrogen Powered Drones—Are They Ready to Deliver Your Packages?

Oct. 31, 2019
Article by Phil Robinson

Many people, and companies, feel that the future of package delivery includes flying drones. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are poised to reduce delivery costs, accelerate delivery times, improve logistics, and decrease delays due to road congestion. 

Major UAV manufacturers are designing delivery drones to meet the anticipated need. And delivery companies are either making plans, or moving forward with integrating drones into their operations.

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Recent announcements from UPS, Google's Wing, Uber, and Amazon show that each is making technical advances towards this integration.

Among the types of drones, three power technologies dominate:

  • Battery-powered electric motors—the popular choice for smaller and mid-size drones
  • Internal combustion (IC) engines—commonly used for larger drones
  • Hydrogen fuel cell powered electric motors—the new option for longer travel distance and superior performance in harsh conditions

In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of fuel cell powered drones, a potential game changer for the package delivery industry. 

Click here to download our informational on the key cost, environmental, and  range benefits of hydrogen drones for package delivery companies>>

Fuel Cell Drones: As Quiet as Batteries, With Up to 3x the Delivery Radius, or 9x the Delivery Area  

The two popular power technologies—batteries and IC engines—have serious drawbacks:

  • Poor battery range: battery drones can only stay aloft for 15 to 45 minutes, which restricts their usefulness for package delivery.
  • Loud, dirty, and unreliable IC engines: Small internal combustion engines, similar to those used in chainsaws, are notoriously noisy and high in emissions. In drones, they have also proven historically unreliable, requiring expensive overhauls regularly to keep them running.

When powered by hydrogen fuel cells, drone radius goes up by a factor of 3.  When the radius of a circle gets 3 times larger, the area of the circle gets 9 times larger, growing the potential delivery area exponentially.   

For delivery logistics, this is a breakthrough: a single distribution center can serve an area that is nine times larger. Or seen another way, a delivery company needs nine times fewer distribution centers to serve the same area.

Hydrogen drones are smooth and nearly silent in operation. Just like battery powered drones, fuel cell powered drones have quiet, reliable electric motors. 

At Ballard, where drone R&D and field testing are underway, we have chosen to integrate our fuel cells in drones with larger propellers. These drones are quieter and more power efficient than those using high-pitched propellers, and deliver a stable and near-silent flight. 

(Learn more in Fuel Cell Drones: Giving Battery Drones a Run for the Money.)

Are fuel cell drones ready?

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Fuel cell powered drones are relatively new to the delivery industry. When we discuss the technology’s potential with package delivery companies and drone manufacturers, they raise three concerns:

1. Is the technology mature?

The short answer is yes. Fuel cell power technology is well known and proven. For years, fuel cells have been powering commercial ground vehicles of all kinds. 

Additionally, at Ballard we are currently testing fuel cell powered drones with some of the world’s largest drones and logistics companies with promising results. 

In some cases, we are partnering with delivery service providers; in other cases we are working with UAV manufacturers. Drone manufacturers and delivery companies have many technical challenges to worry about.  It is our goal to ensure power is not one of them. 

2. Is hydrogen fuel available, cost-effective and practical? 

In every major North American market, hydrogen is extremely accessible, and easily available from a variety of industrial gas suppliers. 

But some operators want more than the assurance that fuel is available. They seek the peace of mind of a “complete hydrogen solution” including fuel cells, hydrogen storage and hydrogen gas delivery. 

Ballard is in a unique position to address this, with our FCair™  Complete Commercial Hydrogen Drone Solution. We provide everything companies need to successfully operate commercial fuel cell drones, from fuel cell integration help to refueling equipment and services. 

That way, drone manufacturers can focus on what they do best—designing and building delivery drones. And drone operators can focus on the logistics and intelligence of operating the aircraft, without being preoccupied with the power source.

3. Is the fuel cell power system reliable—in bad weather, at high altitude?

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UAV experts know that batteries and small IC engines perform poorly at higher altitudes, where the air is thinner and colder. Fuel cell performance in sub-optimal conditions can depend on whether the fuel cell uses air or liquid cooling.

  • Liquid cooled fuel cells maintain the fuel cell's internal temperature, so they perform in high heat and deep cold, from sea level to high altitudes. 
  • Air cooled fuel cells operate admirably in moderate climates, but are less suitable for extreme heat and cold, or extremely dry air

Because our partners need a common platform to deliver packages in all seasons, in all weather conditions, at all altitudes, Ballard’s UAV solutions focus on liquid cooled architectures. 

Ballard fuel cells have been powering UAVs in defense and other applications for almost a decade, performing missions that require long endurance, reliability, and dependable performance—just like package delivery. 

Thousands of hours of operations have proven the system reliable in all sorts of demanding environments.

Progress in UAV Regulations and Standards

Before major operators and manufacturers can adopt large-scale delivery solutions, they need airspace regulations in place that assure safe coexistence of unmanned and manned aircraft.

They also need rules to guide advanced UAV operational modes like flying at night, flying over people, and flying beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot. 

In addition, they need to know there are industry standards that assure them, and the public, that UAV platforms and power systems are safe and regulated. 

In North America, both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and Transport Canada (TC) are aggressively pursuing rules and standards that will enable package delivery, as well as many other commercial drone applications. 

Through its sUAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), the FAA is encouraging and monitoring field trials of multiple package delivery technologies and operational scenarios.

TC recently overhauled the Canadian drone rules to clarify guidelines pertaining to commercial operators, and has also approved multiple package delivery trials across Canada to prove out these budding systems.

On the industry standards front, currently the Society of AutomotiveEngineering (SAE), ASTM International, and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) are all exploring or developing standards for hydrogen fuel cells in UAVs. 

And Ballard is very much involved. We are helping move the industry forward, so there will be standards and certifications for aircraft and propulsion systems to assure the FAA and TC of the safety of drone-based package delivery systems. 

We expect to see these standards in place in the next one to two years.

In Conclusion: The Technology Is Ready Today

For the package delivery market, the benefits of fuel cells are clear: 

  • longer flight times resulting in larger coverage areas
  • near-silent operation
  • reliable operation at altitude and in harsh weather
  • a mature, zero-emission technology

Ballard is working closely with delivery service providers and drone designers, while helping to move the regulatory climate forward. It’s time to improve package delivery using zero-emission, high-performing hydrogen powered drones. 


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Impact of Hydrogen Drones for Package Delivery

Discover key cost, environmental, and range benefits that hydrogen drones offer package delivery companies. 

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