Here's a novel idea: Equip a drone with a powerful but compact turbine engine that gives it the same sort of range and flight characteristics turbine-powered aircraft have. Then fly the drone to a remote area or one cut off by disaster, where the same engine can work as a generator that runs off of virtually any local fuel source.
That vision represents one potential application of a new technology from a company called UAV Turbines that's been in R&D for years and could help usher in a new generation of fast, efficient, long-range drones for all kinds of uses. UAV Turbines just announced that its recently unveiled Monarch 5 turboshaft engine can now run on natural gas in addition to heavy fuels like jet fuel. The fuel flexibility makes the Monarch 5 a dexterous power source and gives it real utility beyond the skies, including in remote power generation.
"Most recently, UAV Turbines emerged from a decade of stealth and privately funded research and development to make public demonstrations of its breakthrough propulsion and power generation technology platforms," said Kirk Warshaw, CEO of UAV Turbines. "Since the successful demonstration of the Monarch 5 in Group 3 UAV flight, UAV Turbines has demonstrated its Monarch Hybrid Range Extender (HREX) configuration and prototypes of its turbogenerator system for ground-power applications in the 3-40 kW range."
The technology comes about as drones take on increasingly versatile missions, including delivery, long-range inspection, and disaster relief. As I've written, there's long been a race underway to bring tiny turbine engines, essentially miniature versions of what you'd find in a turbine-powered airplane, to market to satisfy this next frontier in the drone sector. UAV Turbines and other companies like Kratos Turbine Technologies, for example, have been working on the problem. Kratos is developing small turbojets and turbofans for UAV in the defense sector.
Because the technology offers some significant advantages over all-electric propulsion, there's been interest from various corners of the drone industry, including for cargo delivery and military applications. Power generation represents a novel deployment of a technology original developed for the skies.
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"A major feature of our gas turbine engines is that they operate with safe-to-handle heavy fuel such as Jet A and a wide variety of other fuels," says Fred Frigerio, UAV Turbines' Senior Vice President of Engineering. "With minor engineering changes, the Monarch 5 engine can adapt to several different clean energy fuel sources such as natural gas and hydrogen. Both are clean-burning fuels, with little or no output of greenhouse gases. Sustainable and clean energy sources are becoming more important for applications in various environments served by UAV Turbines' new micro-turbogenerator product line."
Applications include hard-to-access remote weather stations, oil fields, telecom towers, construction sites, emergency field teams, stationary first responders, and military vehicle communications. A very portable micro-turbogenerator system running on natural gas or diesel fuel will benefit these users by offering them the flexibility of running with various available fuels while allowing the user to select based on cost, availability, or quality.