UAM Spreads Its Wings, Cuts Its Wires, and Ponders Hydrogen Power
While much of the attention (and money) focused on the emerging urban air mobility (UAM) industry is targeting passenger and cargo transportation powered by electricity, some entrepreneurs are charting a different flight path.
Is Hydrogen Power the Holy Grail of UAM Success?
A tight-knit group of entrepreneurs at HyPoint, based in Menlo Park, CA, aim to demonstrate that hydrogen — not lithium-ion batteries — will prove itself the key element to making zero-emissions air transportation a reality.
The answer, according to HyPoint co-founder and CEO, Dr. Alex Ivanenko, lies in a “turbo air-cooled” hydrogen fuel cell, which promises a 61 percent total weight reduction compared to existing liquid-cooled hydrogen fuel cell systems and a significant increase in energy density compared to battery systems.
HyPoint’s drone fuel cell can produce between 50-150 kilowatts (kW), while its air taxi fuel cell will be capable of producing 200kW-900kW of power, and its e-aircraft cell will be capable of generating 0.6-10 megawatts (MW) of power.
HyPoint is targeting 2023 for a flight demonstration of its 180kW fuel cell, 2024 for a demonstration of its 650kW cell, and hopes to be fully commercial around 2025. Company advisors include former and current executives from Plug Power, ZeroAvia, Joby Aviation, Mercedes-Benz, Amazon, and Microsoft.
The company’s four principals, Sergei Shubenkov, Dr. Brian C. Benicewicz, Rhonda Staudt, and Dr. Alex Ivanenko, came together because of their common belief that our climate and planet face an existential crisis that only decarbonization can solve. By developing a new membrane electrode assembly (MEA), HyPoint creates opportunities that wide- and narrow-body aircraft can use. With a system weight that’s been reduced by 50 percent, HyPoint can increase the amount of hydrogen in the cell and thereby increase range and flight time.
The biggest challenge, according to Dr. Ivanenko, isn’t technological — it’s convincing private and public sector operators of the benefits of a hydrogen power cell compared to those currently being pursued with batteries.
WiGL: Wire-cutting for UAM
In aviation, fly-by-wire (FBW) refers to the replacement of an aircraft’s manual flight controls with an electronic interface – i.e., a system where computers do the heavy-lifting but with greater precision than humans can achieve.
Now, a group of students and educators at the University of Virginia’s Darden Executive Education program are contemplating whether or not today’s wi-fi technologies can be applied to tomorrow’s UAM industry by facilitating the transfer of electric power wirelessly while the aircraft are aloft, similar to the way today’s military aircraft refuel midair using a flying boom attached between a tanker and a jet fighter, except – this new technology, called WiGL (pronounced “wiggle”), and being developed by Wireless Electrical Grid LAN (WiGL, Inc.), proposes recharging eVTOLs midair, without wires.
The system envisions WiGL-enabled transmitters which convert AC or DC electric power into a two-way signal. The transmitters route the WiGL signal to a known receiver which converts the EMR or RF signal into DC to harvest and then stores the power to operate the device, in this case a drone or an air taxi. WiGL is a partnership with Cubic Defense Applications, Inc, a division of Cubic Corporation which specializes in transportation and military technology.
Flash Forestry: A Seedy Idea with Noble IntentionsIt’s no secret that climate change is wreaking environmental upheaval around the world in the forms of more frequent and devastating forest fires, coastal flooding, and increased human-caused air pollution. But while answers and solutions to our problems may be found on other planets, a number of problems can be solved with good, old-fashioned ingenuity right here on Earth.
Bryce Jones, a Toronto, Canada-based entrepreneur, has formed Flash Forest. Along with 19 other colleagues, the enterprise hopes to compensate for the loss of forest land and the devastating effect that can have on global ecosystems by using UAVs to reseed areas that have been adversely impacted by fires and other natural disasters and reestablish the arboreal biodiversity of the area.
Flash Forest is planting or plans to plant, more than 15 species of trees in key areas across Canada. Using its technologies, Flash Forest maps out prime planting locations with a targeted average density of 1,000 to 2,000 trees per hectare (about 2.5 acres). The long-term goal, according to Flash Forest, is to plant 100,000 seed pods daily, a process supervised by two UAV operators. The ultimate goal: 1 billion trees reforested by 2028.
Flash Forest is taking its place among a growing number of altruistic endeavors using drones. Zipline has delivered blood to patients in Rwanda; Seattle, Washington-based DroneSeed, is pursuing a similar mission in the U.S.; and the recent volcano in La Palma, Spain, has seen Aerocamaras use drones to help save dogs stranded by the lava covering parts of the island.
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