Almost two years ago, an experimental U.S. Navy drone flew nonstop for 26 hours during a record-shattering flight for fuel-cell-powered drones. That flight and other demonstrations since have encouraged a new report to envision fuel cells as the U.S. Department of Defense's "technology of choice" for powering aerial drones, ground robots and even U.S. military bases within five years.
Fuel cells have proven a cleaner and more energy-efficient power source compared to the combustion engines used by Humvees, tanks, jet fighters and base generators. They could someday serve as wearable power sources for soldiers in Afghanistan or as primary power aboard U.S. Navy ships; however, the recent report sponsored by the Department of Defense advised the U.S. military to focus on acquiring fuel cells for the most immediate uses.
That doesn't mean fuel cells can singlehandedly satiate the U.S. military's hunger for clean energy solutions. But they could join the spread of energy solutions that may free U.S. troops from dependence on oil and the supply chain of fuel convoys.
One huge opportunity comes from the growing robot swarms of flying, rolling and swimming drones that could use fuel cells to operate longer during missions, boost fuel efficiency and reduce noise and heat signatures. Hybrid versions of ground robots have outperformed their battery-only peers. Fuel cells have also shown promise in boosting the range of both aerial and underwater drones.
Another opportunity exists with military bases using fuel cells to supply all or part of their electric power, heating and cooling needs. Such distributed power generation could either serve as backup power or completely free military installations from dependency on the power grid. Army, Navy and Marine bases already have fuel cell systems provided by companies such as UTC Power and Fuel Cell Energy.
Even military warehouses and supply chains give fuel cells a chance to shine. Fleets of fuel-cell-powered forklifts have already proven more productive, cleaner and quieter to run than their battery-powered counterparts in civilian warehouses.
The report holds off on fully endorsing fuel cells as the best technology for any U.S. military need, given that fuel cells currently represent a more expensive choice with less operational history. But it does suggest that the Department of Defense require consideration of fuel cells for battlefield robots and military bases.
The report released by LMI Government Consulting on Oct. 25 was sponsored by the Defense Logistics Agency Research and Development.
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