Pursuing a future with green hydrogen aircraft

FlyH2 Aerospace’s Dragonfly V drone, a long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system hydrogen-electric aircraft, successfully complete its first test flight

14th April 2023

By: Tracy Hancock

Creamer Media Contributing Editor


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While Western Cape drone developer FlyH2 Aerospace is making headway with the development of its long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system, hydrogen-electric aircraft, the Dragonfly V, it is establishing a new division, FlyH2 Energy, to develop fuel cells and water electrolysers for small-scale, green hydrogen production to power aircraft.

The company hopes to collaborate with local institutions and companies to develop green hydrogen electrolysers and ground refuelling stations, says FlyH2 cofounder and lead designer Mark van Wyk.

“At the moment, the green hydrogen industry is still in its infancy in South Africa. But we're very keen on partnerships aimed at developing and creating a market for this equipment.”

Van Wyk explains that the original vision for FlyH2 was to enable small-scale green hydrogen production for light aircraft. The company was, however, advised to initially focus on drone development, owing to the less complex approvals process.

“The idea was to install a hydrogen production unit in a hanger, which has rooftop solar panels and a roof-top wind turbine, to fuel hydrogen-electric aircraft. When travelling to a neighbouring airfield, this aircraft could then be refuelled using a similar refuelling station, for example. The use of such a refuelling station in combination with a hydrogen-electric aircraft not only eliminates the entire fuel supply chain but also decreases maintenance costs ­– as there are fewer moving parts. This creates a low-cost, low-maintenance, zero-emissions form of flight that also gives lower-income individuals access to general aviation.”

While it is not the solution to solving climate change – with aviation accounting for only about 2% of total global emissions in 2019 – aligning the hydrogen economy with aviation will help pave the way to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and, thereby, advance climate change mitigation, adds Van Wyk.

Hydrogen-powered commercial flight innovator Universal Hydrogen cofounder and CEO Paul Eremenko says more than half of aviation’s carbon dioxide emissions currently come from the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family of aircraft, according to a report published last month by technology news site GeekWire.

Universal Hydrogen successfully completed the first flight of a hydrogen regional airliner, a 40-seater Dash-8, early last month.

When done perfecting its Dragonfly V commercial drone, FlyH2 intends to focus on general aviation electric aircraft and address the weight issue associated with the number of batteries required to power such airplanes.

“It is going to become increasingly feasible to fly hydrogen-powered airplanes, owing to the light weight of hydrogen, composite technology progressing to develop lighter storage tanks, better compression technology being introduced and fuel cells becoming more cost effective,” explains Van Wyk, adding that aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing have also undertaken projects to develop hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft.

While Airbus intends to develop the world's first hydrogen-powered commercial passenger aircraft by 2035, Boeing has committed to making commercial airplanes capable of burning 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

“A company called ZeroAvia is also building a hydrogen-powered De Havilland Dash 8-400 aircraft. People are criticising them at the moment because they use 1 MW of power for takeoff. But I see them as brave. They're pushing the technology forward. So, it's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when,” says Van Wyk.

South Africa’s beneficiation of platinum, the Hydrogen Society Roadmap, HySA’s Centres of Competence, the local abundance of renewable-energy resources and available space for flying puts the country in the ideal position to advance hydrogen-powered aviation, he adds.

This is in addition to South Africa’s aviation engineering expertise, especially when considering Atlas Aircraft Corporation’s development of fighter aircraft, the Atlas Cheetah, which was later produced by struggling Denel Aeronautics, which also produced the Rooivalk helicopter.

“All of these individuals with 40 to 50 years of aerospace engineering experience are worried about whether they will have jobs next year, should Denel’s more than R3-billion bailout fail to turn around the State arms manufacturer in the next two years as expected.

“We also have a massive aviation fraternity, and the South African Civil Aviation Authority is really positive towards experimental flight and new technology development in South Africa. There is no better environment in which to fly and test aircraft,” notes Van Wyk.

Designed with low operational cost, reliability and daily use in mind, FlyH2’s Dragonfly V drone is in the final stages of development and its first test flight (video attached) took place successfully last month. Read ‘Orders roll in for Dragonfly V commercial drone under development’.

Edited by Zandile Mavuso
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor: Features



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