Green Drone: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powers ScanEagle

Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing, announced this month that its ScanEagle unmanned aircraft completed a hydrogen-powered test flight for the first time.

A propulsion module made from a 1,500-watt fuel cell by United Technologies and a hydrogen fueling solution by the Naval Research Laboratory were integrated into the ScanEagle at Insitu’s facilities in Bingen, Wash. This ScanEagle is lighter than the traditional model, so operation costs are lower and there’s more room for equipment. the company said. And with hydrogen fuel, the aircraft left behind no harmful emissions during the two-and-a-half-hour test run.

scaneagle fuel cell

image via Boeing

The ScanEagle evolved from the SeaScan miniature robotic aircraft, which was debuted in 1998 by Insitu and designed to monitor schools of tuna and guide commercial fishers in the ocean around them. When Boeing and the U.S. military took an interest, the ScanEagle was created to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data or communications relay. It has been used by the U.S. military in Iraq to collect important tactical information since 2004 and more recently by military organizations in several other countries including Australia, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands.

The ScanEagle functions autonomously but can be controlled from a remote computer station. If communications fail, the unmanned aircraft is programmed to return to a predetermined home base. Runway-independent, the 4-foot long ScanEagle with a 10-foot wingspan is launched by a pneumatic wedge catapult and retrieved by catching onto a rope hanging from a 50-foot pole in the “skyhook” system. The aircraft is capable of flying for about 15 consecutive hours (at least)—even in harsh weather conditions. It also includes high-speed wireless communications relay and stabilized electro-optical or infrared cameras. The ScanEagle has over 500,000 combat flight hours and continues to improve in design.

Based in New York City, Leah Jones is a freelance writer with undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and forensic science. She has worked on research in the toxicology field for several years, and she brings her passion for science into the realm of green technology with EarthTechling. Leah has studied English at the graduate level and has authored or co-authored over 30 publications in scientific journals. When she's not writing, Leah enjoys playing music with her husband and teaching music to New York City kids.