Ballard’s fuel cells for military drones take flight

Boeing subsidiary specializing in drones renews contract with Ballard Power Systems

Launching Insitu’s ScanEagle drone | Credit: Ballard Power Systems

Specialized military drones will take to the sky a little longer due to technology developed in B.C.

Ballard Power Systems (TSX: BLDP) has confirmed its next generation of fuel-cell propulsion systems designed to power unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are ready to launch.

The Burnaby-based company, best known for developing fuel-cell technology for heavy duty vehicles like buses, announced December 22 that Boeing Company (NYSE: BA) subsidiary Insitu has re-upped its contract to continue testing the fuel-cell system on its ScanEagle UAVs.

Insitu has been testing Ballard’s fuel-cell technology on its drones for two years.

Insitu’s main customers for the ScanEagle drones include the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps and the Australian Army. The Canadian Army has also used the drones.

“This new fuel cell has the potential to deliver a range of benefits compared to the use of an internal combustion engine, or ICE, to power the ScanEagle,” Phil Robinson, vice-president of unmanned systems at Ballard subsidiary company Protonex, said in a statement.

“These benefits are likely to include an increase in reliability and available electrical power along with a simultaneous reduction in audible noise, thereby enabling lower altitude missions."

The power systems are designed for small unmanned fixed wing and vertical take-off and landing platforms. The first successful flight-testing was announced earlier this year.

Ballard said in its release that the new fuel-cell propulsion system is an improvement from the previous iteration, offering increased power density, reduced cost and extended lifetime.

The technology also allows for a higher power input without an increase to the size or weight of the system.

Terms of the follow-on contract were not released.