The NRL's fuel-cell powered Ion Tiger UAV has been reported to operate quieter and longer than electrical or gas powered UAV systems. The fuel cell itself is being developed in-house.
In particular, the Ion Tiger UAV tests a hydrogen-powered fuel cell design, which can travel farther and carry heavier payloads than earlier battery-powered designs. Ion Tiger employs stealthy characteristics due to its small size, reduced noise, low heat signature and zero emissions.
"This will really be a 'first of its kind' demonstration for a fuel cell system in a UAV application for a 24-hour endurance flight, with a 5 pound payload," says ONR Program Manager Dr. Michele Anderson. "That's something nobody can do right now."
In 2005, NRL backed initial research in fuel cell technologies for UAVs. Today, says Swider-Lyons, it's paying off with a few lessons learned from the automotive industry.
"With UAVs, we are dealing with relatively small fuel cells of 500 watts," she explains. "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."
Click to download a video of the Ion Tiger (5.6mb).