Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are the most dynamic growth sector of the aerospace industry today. The need to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for military operations is driving the planned acquisition of over 5,000 UAVs over the next five years. The most pressing need is for quiet, small UAVs with endurance beyond what is capable with advanced batteries or small internal combustion propulsion systems. Fuel cell systems demonstrate high efficiency, high specific energy, low noise, low temperature operation, modularity, and rapid refuelability making them a promising enabler of the small, quiet, and persistent UAVs that military planners are seeking.
Despite the perceived benefits, the actual near-term performance of fuel cell powered UAVs is unknown. Until the auto industry began spending billions of dollars in research, fuel cell systems were too heavy for useful flight applications. However, the last decade has seen rapid development with fuel cell gravimetric and volumetric power density nearly doubling every 2–3 years. As a result, a few design studies and demonstrator aircraft have appeared, but overall the design methodology and vehicles are still in their infancy.
The design of fuel cell aircraft poses many challenges. Fuel cells differ fundamentally from combustion based propulsion in how they generate power and interact with other aircraft subsystems. As a result, traditional multidisciplinary analysis (MDA) codes are inappropriate. Building new MDAs is difficult since fuel cells are rapidly changing in design, and various competitive architectures exist for balance of plant, hydrogen storage, and all electric aircraft subsystems. In addition, fuel cell design and performance data is closely protected which makes validation difficult and uncertainty significant. Finally, low specific power and high volumes compared to traditional combustion based propulsion result in more highly constrained design spaces that are problematic for design space exploration.
To begin addressing the current gaps in fuel cell aircraft development, a methodology has been developed to explore and characterize the near-term performance of fuel cell powered UAVs. The first step of the methodology is the development of a valid MDA. This is accomplished by using propagated uncertainty estimates to guide the decomposition of a MDA into key contributing analyses (CAs) that can be individually refined and validated to increase the overall accuracy of the MDA. To assist in MDA development, a flexible framework for simultaneously solving the CAs is specified. This enables the MDA to be easily adapted to changes in technology and the changes in data that occur throughout a design process. Various CAs that model a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) UAV are developed, validated, and shown to be in agreement with hardware-in-the-loop simulations of a fully developed fuel cell propulsion system. After creating a valid MDA, the final step of the methodology is the synthesis of the MDA with an uncertainty propagation analysis, an optimization routine, and a chance constrained problem formulation. This synthesis allows an efficient calculation of the probabilistic constraint boundaries and Pareto frontiers that will govern the design space and influence design decisions relating to optimization and uncertainty mitigation.
A key element of the methodology is uncertainty propagation. The methodology uses Systems Sensitivity Analysis (SSA) to estimate the uncertainty of key performance metrics due to uncertainties in design variables and uncertainties in the accuracy of the CAs. A summary of SSA is provided and key rules for properly decomposing a MDA for use with SSA are provided. Verification of SSA uncertainty estimates via Monte Carlo simulations is provided for both an example problem as well as a detailed MDA of a fuel cell UAV.
Implementation of the methodology was performed on a small fuel cell UAV designed to carry a 2.2 kg payload with 24 hours of endurance. Uncertainty distributions for both design variables and the CAs were estimated based on experimental results and were found to dominate the design space. To reduce uncertainty and test the flexibility of the MDA framework, CAs were replaced with either empirical, or semi-empirical relationships during the optimization process. The final design was validated via a hardware-in-the loop simulation. Finally, the fuel cell UAV probabilistic design space was studied. A graphical representation of the design space was generated and the optima due to deterministic and probabilistic constraints were identified. The methodology was used to identify Pareto frontiers of the design space which were shown on contour plots of the design space. Unanticipated discontinuities of the Pareto fronts were observed as different constraints became active providing useful information on which to base design and development decisions.