Drones are making inroads into the oil and gas industry, and these inroads could very well turn into highways for this technology in an industry that features a lot of surveillance and inspection work. Thanks to drones, this work can now be done remotely—but there is one problem with the dominant kind of drones that are fed power by batteries: they don’t last very long in the air.
Typical battery drone flight times are seldom above 30 minutes, but surveys and inspections of oilfields and equipment could take hours. This means extra time for battery replacement and charging, but there is one alternative to battery-powered drones that is offering great time savings: drones powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Fuel cell technology has been unable to garner the attention that batteries are still attracting as the future of power, but they are still a topic of conversation because of all the benefits they offer. For drones, these benefits begin with much, much longer flight times than battery-powered drones. We are talking about hours rather than minutes. Here are a few examples.
The Hycopter, the world’s first fuel cell drone, developed by Singapore-based H3 Dynamics, can stay in the air between one and a half and four hours with a payload of one kilo. The Hycopter’s developers were clever with the hydrogen storage, too. The fuel is actually stored in the drone’s tubular frame rather than in a separate tank.
Or take the drones developed by Intelligent Energy, a company with a long history in fuel cell development. The company boasts a combination of long flight times, clean energy, and quick refueling times, which make their fuel cell drones particularly suited for things like offshore platform inspections.
A Chinese company, MMC, has also joined the fuel cell drone party, claiming that its drones can refuel with hydrogen within 30-40 minutes as opposed to hours for recharging a lithium battery for battery-powered drones. Like the rest of them, MMC’s fuel cells are also lightweight, which is of crucial importance for flight times.
Light weight and fast refueling times are the slogan of another fuel cell drone maker, a unit of Ballard Power Systems. An additional benefit of this company’s products is a partnership between the drone maker and a network of hydrogen distributors that could deliver hydrogen anywhere in the United States, according to the parent company.
Access to hydrogen supply is one of the biggest problems with fuel cells. It is one of the reasons why this technology has failed to thrive, replaced by battery-powered hybrids and pure plug-ins. Another is the cost of the technology—fuel cell cars are a lot more expensive than EVs because of this. A third problem is the cost of hydrogen supply. Because the gas is highly flammable, transport is risky, hence it is costly.
Perhaps some of these problems become less challenging when compared to the cost of battery recharging times and the hassle of having to replace batteries several times to complete an inspection in the field. With flight times of up to—and even more—than four hours, it looks like fuel cell drones might have a brighter future than their counterparts in cars—developing a hydrogen fueling network and reducing the prices of fuel cell cars enough to make them more widely affordable are goals yet to be achieved. Cost and hydrogen supply challenges remain for fuel cell drones as well, but with the right motivation these could probably be overcome.
|Irina Slave for OilPrice.com|