Fuel Cell Powered Military Surveillance Aircraft
It is great news that defense forces are promoting the use of alternative fuels in their own unique way. American army is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan. The greatest advantage of UAVs is that they are nearly untraceable from the ground. They are used heavily by defense forces in overseas missions when uniformed men are already at a disadvantage by just being at a totally foreign and hostile territory. Here using UAVs, terrain can be scanned and intelligence can be gathered. Now it is possible that these UAVs might be flying on alternative fuels. UAVs are used to minimize loss of life of soldiers and pilots in dangerous zones. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is developing an improved version of these aircrafts that can travel to distant places more efficiently and more quietly and run on the newer fuel cell technology.
Rear Admiral Nevin Carr who is the Chief of Naval Research Office explained, “Pursuing energy efficiency and energy independence are core to ONR’s (Office of Naval Research) Power and Energy Focus Area. ONR’s investments in alternative energy sources, like fuel cell research, have application to the Navy and Marine Corps mission in future UAVs and vehicles. These investments also contribute directly to solving some of the same technology challenges faced at the national level.”
Unmanned aircrafts managed remotely or autonomously, were an essential part of the overseas operations. UAVs acted as “eyes in the sky” for dangerous missions minimizing loss of lives. Development of UAVs run on alternative fuels is exhibited by Ion Tiger. Ion tiger is a UAV research program at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that combines two separate efforts — UAV technology and fuel cell systems. The Ion Tiger is utilizing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Few benefits of using hydrogen-powered fuel cell are zero poisonous emissions, lesser heat and minimum noise (military will appreciate this feature with great relief). UAV can carry heavier loads and travel farther. How can all this be achieved? Because hydrogen-powered fuel cells produce an electric current at the time of the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen into water. So the by-product, water, is pollution free. Its fuel cell propulsion system can also pack a powerful performance that is potentially twice the efficiency of an internal combustion engine. This spring, Ion Tiger’s flight trial is expected to exceed the duration of previous flights seven-fold.
Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is conducting research in fuel cell technologies for UAVs since 2005. Dr. Karen Swider-Lyons who is the NRL Principal Investigator states “With UAVs, we are dealing with relatively small fuel cells of 500 watts. It is hard to get custom, high-quality fuel cell membranes built just for this program. So we are riding along with this push for technology from the automotive industry.” So they are giving due credit to the automotive industry in procuring the necessary materials. Dr. Karen Swider-Lyons further draws our attention to the core issue. She says, “What’s different with fuel cell cars is that developers are focused on volume…so they want everything very compact. Our first issue is weight, our second issue is weight and our third issue is weight!”
In the end we can safely conclude that the Navy and Marine Corps are looking for more efficient sources of energy. ONR has been making forays into research and testing power and energy technology for decades. Often they are successful in improving their ships, aircrafts, vehicles on account of efficiency and power generation. But the benefits are not limited to the military alone. Ultimately, their efforts yield a direct benefit to the public.