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Hydrogen-powered drones and other high-tech research Interview with Miriam Flügger, Head of Corporate Communications at the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research

Hydrogen-powered drones and other high-tech research
Even from afar, the huge hydrogen tank at the entrance leaves visitors in no doubt as to how ZAL envisions the future of aeronautics. Copyright: Daniel Reinhardt/ZAL

ZAL is the flagship for aviation research far beyond Hamburg itself. What areas of research does ZAL engage in, and what does your technical equipment look like?

Flügger: In ZAL, in addition to the usual office workstations, we have factory hall and laboratory spaces with specific research infrastructures available to us. These include test rigs for suspending aircraft fuselages, an AI Lab, a gymnasium-sized Acoustics Lab for flight tests on the ground and the Fuel Cell Lab. The latter includes research areas that are equipped with gas connections for hydrogen, oxygen, compressed air and nitrogen. There’s also a wide range of facilities for workplace safety, such as ventilation and gas warning systems. The areas are further equipped by individual research partners such as Airbus and DLR, which are very active here. At ZAL GmbH, we have our own test stand for characterising fuel cell systems, variable structures for investigating a range of questions around real-life operation of stacks and flying platforms in the form of hydrogen-fuelled drones. In addition, all partners have access to a well equipped workshop for building prototypes.

A view of the fuel cell laboratory. Copyright: Daniel Reinhardt/ZAL

What can external companies use?

Flügger: Use of the infrastructure depends on the degree to which companies are embedded within ZAL. Currently we have around 30 enterprises that have hired specific areas in ZAL to make long-term progress driving forward their goals. The areas are equipped and used individually. As a rule, external companies only have access to areas within the scope of projects in which they are research partners.

But the extension to the building, which is currently near completion, will offer areas suitable for external projects. This service is aimed at meeting the demand for flexible rental spaces that can be used for shorter lets. This is particularly interesting for collaborative research projects, in which internal and external partners work on various milestones either concurrently or in sequence. The Flex Space includes production halls, labs and offices with and without technical equipment.


How important is hydrogen research at ZAL?

Flügger: Hydrogen research is one of our most important areas of our work. A lot of people don’t know this, but it’s been an important component of our strategy since 2009, the year ZAL was founded. Overall, ZAL is notable for the diversity of the themes it covers. Besides hydrogen, these include robotics and automation, AI and simulation, 3D printing and acoustics. Technologies that reflect current themes and tech trends in aviation. Interestingly, it’s often the case that innovations emerge from the combining of different research areas. One current research project, for example, concerns the automation of fuel cell production with the use of a smart sensor system, an AI intended to optimise manufacturing.

The project is an excellent example of how important “out of the box” thinking is. An approach that is also reflected in our deliberations and discussions with various players in the maritime industry: engaging in cross-sector collaborative hydrogen research to create synergies. For example, CML, the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services, will be moving into spaces at ZAL as part of the ITZ.


What is your vision for your site and for your research projects?

Flügger: Over the next few years, decarbonisation of aviation takes priority. But it’s important to understand here that there’s no one solution we have to develop.  Even though we talk a lot about hydrogen as a source of hope in aviation, it’s just one aspect we’re looking at. We have to consider the whole life-cycle of an aircraft. This includes production processes and use of materials as well as operation, maintenance and recycling. Hamburg has the decisive advantage that we have players from all sectors represented here. This means the big goal of sustainable aviation is driven forward from many angles here. ZAL’s role is to provide a neutral research platform that offers maximum support to the stakeholders. With that in mind, the plan is to expand ZAL in two steps.  Through the addition of a new wing we will expand our research area from 26,000 to 34,000 square metres. There are also plans for a further new building on the opposite side of the road. This means a lot of new space for researchers, test systems and networking events.


In your view, what makes collaboration in ZAL so special?

Flügger: This place draws life from active dialogue. The staff of the companies have a lot of opportunities to meet up and talk, whether that’s in the café, the in-house table football league, summer after-work socials or specialist events. Networking is a priority for us. It’s a precondition for good collaboration – which benefits research enormously.

Overview of the hydrogen-powered drone types at ZAL.

Name ZALbatros LiquiDrone H2 Finity
Type Hexacopter with carbon fibre structure Hexacopter with carbon fibre structure Fixed wing with GRP/CFRP construction
Powertrain Two fuel cell systems, 300 bar pressure tank Fuel cell system with liquid hydrogen tank Fuel cell system, ~300 bar pressure tank
Operation purpose Research platform as basis for scientific projects Research platform as basis for scientific projects Demonstrator for early fire detection
Size 1.5 metres diameter 1.5 metres diameter wingspan of 3.6 metres
Weight 12 kilograms approx. 18 kilograms 25 kilograms take-off weight
Flight duration Two hours ten minutes Target: ten hours More than six hours
First flight Autumn 2019 Spring 2024 Summer 2024

Drone research

Drone research
Working at ZALbatros with red gas tank. Copyright: Daniel Reinhardt/ZAL

Which hydrogen-powered drones currently exist at ZAL?

Flügger: The ZALbatros is our prototype and research platform and is powered by a fuel cell that draws on gaseous hydrogen. Compared to battery-powered drives, this comes with significant advantages in regard to flying times. We can now keep the drone airborne for over two hours. The next step is the LiquiDrone, which utilises liquid hydrogen. It has a far greater energy density, which enables a much longer time in the air. The technical complexity is much greater, of course – not only because the hydrogen is kept at cryogenic temperatures, but also because of the regasification for use in the fuel cell. It is therefore a significant leap forward, with tremendous potential for use in industries that require long operating times.


Which is more challenging: Technology or authorisation?

Flügger: That depends on where the drones are used. For offshore wind farms, where drones are used for maintenance, the requirements are much lower than above a city with controlled airspace. For an overview of how drones are implemented and used commercially in the Hamburg metropolitan region, visit the network Windrove.

About Oliver Schenk

Profilbild zu: Oliver Schenk

I’m responsible for hydrogen marketing and therefore ensure that local projects and events are recognised in the Hamburg metropolitan area and beyond. To help this promising energy source achieve a breakthrough, I support the hydrogen economy with editorial articles, network events, video productions and much more.