DECARBONED AVIATION: First successful flight test for the hydrogen-powered Mermoz Drone

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In January, the first “Mermoz Drone” demonstrator powered by gaseous hydrogen successfully carried out its first radio-controlled flight on the runway of the Muret model flying club in the Toulouse region (31).

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The design of the 4-meter wide demonstrator is inspired by albatrosses that use atmospheric turbulence to fly for very long periods with a minimum of effort. The road will be long for the “Mermoz Challenge” which aims to cross the South Atlantic by 2025 following the mythical Aéropostale line linking Dakar (Senegal) to Natal (Brazil) first opened by Jean Mermoz.

What a formidable challenge for this future light electric drone to do this trip all by itself and without emitting any CO2. The goal is to demonstrate the feasibility and reliability of this electric aircraft powered by an energy unit combining a fuel cell and solar panel, capable of flying over very long distances while being light enough to come under the French out of line of sight flight certification category.

Liquid hydrogen, a real technological leap

Hydrogen is one of the most promising energy sources to achieve aviation decarbonization. For drones, hydrogen-electric propulsion will above all make it possible to extend the performance of these aircraft by significantly increasing their range. This will reduce the costs of air activities that are now expensive and time-consuming: searching for shipwreck survivors at sea, surveillance of vast areas such as woodlands to detect fires as soon as they break out, mapping missions or inspections of large linear networks (power lines, railways, gas pipelines, etc.).

In 2023, ISAE-SUPAERO will develop a drone powered by liquid hydrogen. Storing hydrogen in liquid form makes it possible to triple the quantity of hydrogen on board for the same volume, making it possible to multiply the distance that can be crossed in the same proportion. The transition from gas to liquid, however, raises a number of technical challenges: the challenge is to control the storage and heat of the fluid on board and optimize the available energy flows (solar, hydrogen, aerological), while maintaining a high level of reliability and aeropropellant performance. This new development phase will end with test flights earmarked for early 2024.

From the drone to the Mermoz Challenge, expert contributions at every stage

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The project initiated in 2018 by a team of researchers from ISAE-SUPAERO led by Professor Jean-Marc Moschetta, who worked on the aerodynamic and propellant design of the demonstrators, energy modeling of the hydrogen chain and who led the wind tunnel test phase on the ISAE-SUPAERO campus.

H3 Dynamics, the world leader in airborne hydrogen-electric propulsion systems, a partner of the “MERMOZ Drone”, helped finance the manufacture of the two demonstrators, supplied the hydrogen fuel cell system and provided its expertise on how to integrate and use hydrogen safely on board the aircraft.

Many players were involved at this stage: H2PULSE, the Laplace laboratory, the Nogaro high school, the Ecole Nationale de la Météorologie (Météo-France), ENAC, LAAS-CNRS and the Eole Muret model flying club. The project was co-financed by the Occitania Region and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) with H3 Dynamics as an industrial partner. It has benefited from the support of the ISAE-SUPAERO Foundation which, thanks to the donors of the Class Gift Inter-Promotions 2020-2000-1980, has raised funds to help buy equipment to fly the demonstrator.

“For this pioneering “Mermoz Drone” project, we are carrying out important academic work on the hydrogen chain. We aim to validate the models developed during this phase so that they can be used for larger-scale aircraft. This work also enables us to enrich the teaching dispensed to our students and prepare them for the disruptive technologies that will underpin decarbonized aviation,” explained Jean-Marc Moschetta.

The sequel to the great adventure is called “Mermoz Challenge”, it will be piloted with DELAIR, a company specialized in the design and manufacture of several generations of professional drones.

“A world first that will be based on disruptive technologies, which are part of the roadmap towards decarbonized aviation.” concluded Jean-Marc Moschetta.

Discover the images of the first flight

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