Initiated by a team of researchers from the ISAE-SUPAERO aerodynamics laboratory, the “Drone Mermoz” project aims to participate in the development of breakthrough technologies for electric aviation.
In partnership with the company H3 Dynamics SARL, a specialist in hydrogen energy systems for aeronautics, this project aims to design a small-scale prototype 100% electric aircraft with a very long range.
An Atlantic crossing of a small-scale hydrogen-powered aircraft would represent a first step towards the development of larger, low-carbon aircraft for air transport.
Supported by the Occitania Region and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the project will lead to the manufacture of a demonstrator: a hydrogen-powered drone aircraft that will show that long-distance flights are possible without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.
A zero-emission airplane for long-distance flights
Faced with the physical limitations imposed by battery-powered electric flight, a team of researchers and students from ISAE-SUPAERO, led by Professor Jean-Marc Moschetta, is working on the design of a small, pilotless aircraft with electric propulsion that does not emit greenhouse gases during flight. At the beginning of the year, the experimentation phase was launched. This will make it possible to confirm the feasibility of a pilotless aircraft system powered by a hydrogen fuel cell capable of flying over very long distances, and light enough to enter the French certification category allowing it to fly out of sight. The researchers wish to show that it is possible to cross the Atlantic in the footsteps of Jean Mermoz or other Aéropostale pioneers, from Senegal to Brazil.
Based on the results of this study, a 4-meter wingspan demonstrator will be manufactured and flight-tested in order to validate all the technological bricks. The issue of the on-board payload will also be part of the work to quickly give this record-breaking aircraft a concrete utility in the real world: commercial versions will be available to meet inspection missions for vast and isolated structures, or environmental monitoring missions, particularly maritime. This 100% electric UAV will be able to carry out a wide range of inspection and reconnaissance missions, which are currently carried out by airplanes or helicopters.
The “Drone Mermoz” project echoes ISAE-SUPAERO’s commitment to the environment and energy transition. Through technological innovations and the eco-design of cleaner aircraft, the Institute’s research department is thus setting up research programs to better take into account the issues related to energy and climate in the aerospace sector.
Liquid hydrogen: a clean and suitable alternative to electric aircraft propulsion
Within the framework of the “Drone Mermoz” project, ISAE-SUPAERO is collaborating with the company H3 Dynamics SARL which manufactures and markets hydrogen fuel cells. Through the work of its subsidiary HES Energy Systems, H3 Dynamics has developed a high level of expertise in the manufacture and integration of hydrogen energy systems for robotic and airborne applications. For more than 14 years, HES has developed a range of PEMFC fuel cells for electric propulsion in the aeronautic field, starting its development in the UAV sector. Some of the results will help advance the development of a larger aircraft for the inter-regional transport of goods and people, a program known as “Element One Aviation”, announced at the end of 2018 in Toulouse.
The use of a hydrogen fuel cell makes it possible to use a totally electric propulsion chain, since the hydrogen, stored in gaseous or liquid form, is transformed into electricity. This technology has been widely tested in flight for several years. The choice of storage mode depends on the mission profile.
A real technological breakthrough, the use of liquid hydrogen aims to solve the problem of the low energy density of lithium batteries, currently used on conventional drones, which severely limits the autonomy of aircraft in flight. Indeed, electric propulsion with liquid hydrogen storage would make it possible to provide more than 6 times more energy per unit of mass than a conventional battery electric propulsion, and this, by only emitting water vapor during flight.
Aerodynamics inspired by South Sea birds
The “Drone Mermoz” project also includes a major innovation: it is inspired by the flight techniques of albatross type birds. These birds exploit the atmospheric turbulence encountered over the oceans to fly for very long periods of time while limiting their efforts. ISAE-SUPAERO is working on a bio-inspired aerodynamic design that integrates the natural capabilities of birds into the system, thereby increasing flight time and distance traveled.
“Mermoz” should make it possible to build coherent scenarios and enrich the debate on the decarbonation of the aviation sector. In the current context of the aeronautics industry, “Mermoz” could represent the first step towards the decarbonization of the aviation sector.