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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Innovation 2013 – Aerospace Edition

Unique Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Takes Flight

Test flights of a battery-powered version of what’s intended to be the world’s first university-built, liquid hydrogen-powered airplane have been conducted by students at Washington State University.

Researchers want to develop such vehicles to fly at extremely high altitudes for days at a time. Unlike satellites, hydrogen powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can return to earth and be reused, said Jacob Leachman, assistant professor in the WSU School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and leader of the project.

The U.S. Congress recently mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration allow UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds into open airspace by 2015. Carrying 15 pounds, the WSU prototype weighs 55 pounds.

Cutting-edge technology, experience

UAVs have numerous applications, ranging from weather monitoring to agricultural and military applications.

“It’s a really exciting industry, and it is projected to double in size in the next decade,” Leachman said.

Hydrogen-powered craft are also more environmentally friendly than those depending on fossil fuels since the only waste product is water.

Leachman wanted to give students a valuable, hands-on experience in developing a cutting-edge technology. The project provides the opportunity for WSU to do something that no one else is doing at a university, he said.

“Think of it as student-driven research. The hands-on experience they are building is incredible,” he says. “It’s a real win-win for everyone.”

A year in the works

Theoretically, hydrogen-powered planes can stay aloft for two weeks, much longer than vehicles using conventional fuel. The Navy’s Ion Tiger fuel cell-powered vehicle recently set an endurance record at 48 hours of continuous flight.

WSU’s prototype is made of fiberglass-laminated plastic foam with a carbon-fiber wing spar. It has a wing span of 19 feet. It is named Genii, derived from the Latin potentiahydrogenii or the potential of hydrogen.

The WSU team of about 10 mechanical and electrical engineering students has been working on the project for about a year, thanks to the financial support of alumni gifts.

Moving toward hybrid

The team has conducted two test flights under battery power to look at the plane’s mechanical structure, flight characteristics, and computer performance. In the next few months, students will move to using a hydrogen fuel cell that runs on hydrogen gas and then to liquid hydrogen, when the test flights will be conducted in restricted airspace.

The idea is similar to a hybrid car, said Leachman, but instead of moving from battery power to gasoline, the plane will move to hydrogen power. The hybrid drive train with battery backup allows the researchers to flight test a number of different fuel and alternative energy technologies.