IDC has just completed a project to develop an innovative hydrogen fuel cell for use on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Designed by IDC’s team in Shanghai for Chinese company Troowin, the fuel cell is highly compact and powers UAVs for longer than ever before.

Troowin specialises in developing fuel cells for UAVs and had found the market was slow to accept this technology as UAV manufacturers believed existing fuel cells were quite bulky and relatively heavy. IDC was briefed to develop a new generation of fuel cell which would be lighter, more compact and with a better configuration to meet the aesthetic needs of users. These features are also crucial to the flying performance of the UAVs, since they have a direct effect on flying altitude and flight duration. Troowin wanted IDC to explore all design options, from structural engineering to material usage to find a solution that would save the maximum amount of energy for an improved flight time.

Troowin came to IDC with a simple functional model, without any refinement to its structure or appearance. IDC’s team evaluated the concept and assessed how it could be re-engineered structurally to make it lighter, more accessible and aesthetically appealing without losing functionality.

IDC China’s Technical Director, Mike Pratt, explains how they approached the challenge, “At the start of the project, we came up with a list of exciting creative ideas to help us develop inspiring features. In designing the device we followed our principle of simplicity. We had to come up with an effective solution which balanced size and appearance, with weight, materials, strength and overall cost. So our engineers explored many iterations of the design to achieve the perfect balance of all these factors.”

IDC’s engineers found ways of creating smaller, lighter components and integrating a few parts into one single part. Solid structures such as connection tubes were replaced with hollow versions. As well as this, the team assessed a variety of different materials to reduce the weight and improve the strength of the device. Carbon fibre was explored as one possibility, but stress analysis revealed that its strength was beyond the needs of the development, as well as being heavier than other alternatives, and with a high price tag, this was ruled out. A variety of plastics were also tested and the team chose ABS as the material for the casing, being lightweight, strong and low cost. Thermoforming as a manufacturing process also offered a cost effective process for mass production if required.

The inner workings of the device were also improved by better design. Ventilation is an important feature of the fuel cell, to cool the device and provide enough oxygen for the chemical reaction to take place. IDC’s engineers cleverly created an air chamber for the flow of air within the structure by replacing ventilation tubes and cutting out structures in the original design that weren’t necessary to provide structural strength and replaced them with less space-consuming lightweight materials.

IDC’s industrial designers focused on making the fuel cell more aesthetically appealing and intuitive for easy installation onto UAVs, as well as for maintenance and wiring to ensure an optimum power connection. The team gave helpful physical cues for fitting by adding clear frames and grooved geometrical structures to guide installation and connection. The metallic structure was designed to form part of the outer styling of the product to give a solid industrial look, which along with a matte dark outer casing, is close to the style of the UAVs.

Troowin is delighted by the new fuel cell, which has led to a great improvement in UAV flight time. In fact, Troowin has now been inspired to review the design and engineering of other products in their fuel cell range.

Troowin's Fuel Cell - Designed by IDC

Troowin's Fuel Cell - Designed by IDC

6 March 2017