US Navy Eyes Fuel-Cell-Powered Underwater Drones

The next generation of the US Navy’s submarine drones will draw their power from hydrogen fuel cells originally developed for the auto industry.

The Navy is collaborating with General Motors to integrate its fuel-cell technology into prototypes of what it calls unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs)—essentially drones that can roam the ocean independently for two months at a time.

A vehicle with that endurance would be extremely costly using conventional batteries. GM did not say how much the Navy is paying for its fuel cells, but the Navy’s goals are to develop “reliable, affordable” undersea drones.

“Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems,” Frank Herr of the Office of Naval Research said in a statement. “Reliability, high energy, and cost effectiveness — all brought to us via GM’s partnering — are particularly important as Navy looks to use UUVs as force multipliers.”

The GM partnership will complement the efforts of other contractors that are also working with the Navy to develop fuel-cell propulsion.

Connecticut-based Infinity says it has contracts with the Office of Naval Research to supply the Navy with fuel-cell hardware and testing. The company successfully tested a 1kW fuel cell with a hydrogen-peroxide reactor. Infinity also supplies fuel cells to NASA and oxygen systems for commercial aircraft.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, have built an amphibious flying drone that is capable of being launched from underwater. It can remain submerged for long periods of time and then fly like a conventional quadcopter.

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