Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been making a lot of headlines in recent months ever since the Zephyr solar-powered plane made several record-breaking endurance flights. However now the UAV industry may have another power option on its hands: hydrogen fuel. AeroVironment‘s high altitude, long-endurance (HALE) Global Observer unmanned aircraft just made its first hydrogen-fueled flight!
Last year, the HALE aircraft made a successful maiden voyage using battery power but this is the first time it has flown on alternative fuels. During its four-hour flight the aircraft reached an altitude of 5,000 feet at Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) in California. Further test flights are planned, which hope to see the plane’s endurance and altitude increased to heights of 55,000 to 65,000 feet.
This is all the more amazing when you consider the aircraft’s size — it’s hardly small, with a wingspan of 175 feet and a length of 70 feet long. It can also carry payloads of up to 400 lbs while its liquid-hydrogen propulsion system drives four electric motors.
The Global Observer UAV was designed as a constant remote imaging, surveillance and communications platform that is more cost-effective and controllable than satellites. The UAV can also cover greater areas than standard low-flying aircraft.
It is hoped that once it is operating at peak efficiency, the HALE aircraft will be able to remain aloft for up to a week. AeroVironment have even speculated that two Global Observers “would provide persistent satellite-like coverage over any location on the globe” at 20 percent of the cost of existing solutions.
“Global Observer has moved quickly from development and testing toward demonstrating mission-ready, affordable persistence,” said Tim Conver, AV chairman and chief executive officer. “Similar to a satellite, Global Observer is the first system designed to provide a 24/7/365 unblinking eye and continuous communications link over any location on the earth’s surface for as long as needed.”
As of 2008, the world’s 16,000 commercial jet aircraft emit more than 600 million tons of CO2 every year, so it’s clear that we need to look into alternative means of air travel in order to cut emissions and stem the onset of climate change. Hydrogen-powered vehicles feature efficient engines that emit only emit only water vapor, making them one possible solution.