Hydrogen-powered drone stays aloft for a day

The Ion Tiger drone, powered by hydrogen fuel cells and developed by the Office of Naval Research, set an electric plane (yes, plane, not train) endurance record last month when it stayed aloft for 23 hours and 17 minutes.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) better known as drones proved themselves several years ago, but how about a aircraft with propulsion that doesn't require fossil fuel. No, I'm not talking about a rubber band.

The Ion Tiger is small prop driven plane that promises to carry a five pound payload and stay aloft for more than 24 hours. The power source is series of hydrogen fuel cells that crank out 500 watts, which is enough to the power the three quarter horsepower prop motor (some coverage said its was three quarter horsepower fuel cell, but I wonder if it was a fuel cell producing 500 watts to power a three quarter horsepower motor to turn the prop).

On Oct. 9-10, the 37-pound Ion Tiger stayed aloft for 23 hours and 17 minutes at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, just missing its 24 hour goal because of rough flight conditions, according to earth.stream.com. The project is being run by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

Ion Tiger:seemingly the size of a supersized model plane...

But it set the record for electrically-powered flight, according to several stories. The ONR can make a plane like this, but this morning when I called a project spokesman this morning, ONR's phones didn't work so my questions have been submitted by e-mail which at the moment feels like snail mail. A spokesman responded right away, but said my timing to reach the scientists involved was bad because this is a holiday week (we should all be so lucky...). I wanted to know or confirm among other things five hows and a when: how fast, how high, how does the remote control work, how much does it weigh, how much money to develop it and when such a craft might enter service. Also, did it land safely during the test?

There are several advantages to a hydrogen-powered craft like Ion Tiger. The obvious ones are cheaper and fuel (water!) and zero emissions assuming the hydrogen comes from a non-polluting source which today is rarely the case. Hydrogen is largely made through electrically-powered electrolyzers or is a byproduct of gasoline refining or chemical manufacturing.

However, as a surveillance craft, for example, perhaps its biggest advantage is the absence of heat and noise generated by an internal combustion engine which makes the Ion Tiger is hard to detect. The extended length of the time it can stay in the air is impressive, too. Let's face it: Big Brother will soon be watching 24x7, but that's an issue much more complex than the technology that can pull it off.

The video below is worth watching and shows how warfare and surveillance are being revolutionized by such marvels as the Ion Tiger, a very clever name by the way. If you catch it, there's a glimpse of one of GM's Chevy Equinox's adapted to run on hydrogen. I spent a morning driving one 18 months ago and it made me a hydrogen fan despite the challenges for this fuel source to become economic.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com