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Hydrogen fuel cells promise to keep drones flying for hours

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Blimps were onto something

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The use of drones by consumers and companies has exploded over the past few years. As the devices have soared in popularity, a lot of the critical features and functions have rapidly improved. The aircraft have gotten steadily cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use. The cameras have gotten better while also getting much smaller. The autonomous navigation has evolved by leaps and bounds. One thing that has not changed much, however, is battery life.

Today Intelligent Energy, a British company specializing in hydrogen power, announced that it has created a fuel cell optimized for small drones. By adding a hydrogen fuel cell onto a typical battery, the company says it can extend flight times from around 20 minutes to over two hours. And because the unit can be recharged with compressed hydrogen, refueling a depleted cell can be accomplished in a few minutes, instead of the 40 minutes to an hour it takes to recharge a typical drone battery.

The same tech can power a smartphone for a week

Intelligent Energy says it has tested the system on generic quadcopters equipped with cameras for the past 14 months. It experimented with a unit carrying only a hydrogen fuel cell and one with a hybrid of fuel cell and battery. It plans to offer the first public demonstrations of these units at CES in January. The company has built versions of its fuel cell to power planes, scooters, and cell towers. It more recently began experimenting in the consumer electronics space, crafting a cellphone battery that could provide a week of power on a single charge.

Qualcomm, which recently announced a new Snapdragon chipset optimized drones, has positioned a more integrated package of processors and sensors as one solution to battery woes. Even with those improvements, it didn’t promise flight times over an hour, but believes it can simultaneously reduce the cost of an average camera drone significantly, because it is producing these chips at massive scale for smartphones.

Imagine the upside for a hydrogen powered smartwatch

"Although FAA visual-line-of-sight rules limit how far away drones can fly, they don't limit how long, and time in the air is becoming increasingly relevant as the industry migrates from consumer to commercial use," said Chris Anderson, the CEO of the drone maker 3D Robotics. "For consumers, simply swapping batteries is an acceptable solution to limited battery life. But commercial users, who may be doing high-resolution mapping or scanning, which requires low-speed paths back and forth over an area, the ability to stay in the air for an hour or more can turn what might be many missions into one."

Intelligent Energy is hoping to realize similar economies of scale. If it can begin to miniaturize its fuel cells for consumer electronics like smartphones and drones, it can begin to reduce its costs, which right now would add significantly to the price over a drone with only a traditional battery. We’ll have more details for you after going hands on with the prototype drone at CES, but it’s tantalizing to think of the possibilities for technology like this if it can be brought down in size and price enough to make sense inside a smartwatch, where limited battery life has been a major drawback on the entire category.