A new startup based in Florida called UAV Turbines has developed a small jet engine, or microturbine, that can be used to power UAVs.
The company’s first microturbine-based propulsion system is called Monarch 5. It comes in a fixed-wing drone that has a 22-foot wingspan and weighs around 500 pounds.
Drone company Navmar Applied Sciences provided their drone, the TigerShark, for the Monarch 5’s first test flight, which was conducted in August at the Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York.
The small UAV market uses aircraft—typically 500 to 1,000 pounds—that are too small for real turbine engines but too large for just electric battery propulsion. Microturbine power can contribute to hybrid systems and generate significant power for vertical liftoff and landing.
– Kirk Warshaw CEO of UAV Turbines
Over recent years jet engines have become incredibly efficient, but most of them are made for huge aircraft, and most advances with jet engines have been made to power even bigger jets. The smallest jet engines are still quite large, with the size of a refrigerator and weighing at least a few hundred pounds.
Photo credit: UAV Turbines
Until now. With the Monarch 5, UAV Turbines has designed one of the smallest commercial-grade variable pitch propellers ever made. These kinds of propellers are often used on turboprops—a jet engine that drives an aircraft propeller—to regulate the speed of the aircraft by controlling the angles of the propeller blades rather than revving the engine down or up.
At 80 pounds, the resulting microturbine is quite small for a jet engine. It’s shaped like a watermelon, runs on standard jet fuel, and can generate a substantial 200 horsepower.
How Microturbines Could Be Used in Drones
Initial applications proposed for UAV Turbine’s new micro jet engine for UAVs have primarily been in the defense sector.
However, their microturbine could also be used in commercial UAV scenarios to power larger delivery drones, or to power drones that could fly farther for longer distances in order to do inspections or other commercial drone work.
Photo credit: UAV Turbines
These small jet engines could also be used to power drone taxis, since the system has the potential to be used in Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) UAVs made to carry passengers.
UAV Turbines CEO Kirk Warshaw has estimated that their microturbine will be ready for commercial drone applications within the next year.
Drone Battery Life and the Search for Alternate Power Sources
Drone battery life has been a limiting factor in the progress of drone applications since drones first hit the market.
As anyone who flies knows, the need to monitor battery life while in the air presents a constant challenge. Prolonging flight time could present a huge opportunity for the drone industry. For example, commercial drone applications like power line or railroad inspections would benefit greatly from the ability to fly long distances without the need to change out a battery,
In fact, all industries that use drones could benefit from extended flight times derived from new, more efficient power systems, not just those industries with obvious distance-related needs.
When we interviewed the CEO of the Drone Racing League Nicholas Horbaczewski a few years ago he spoke about the search to extend flight times by finding new power sources and by making existing ones more efficient.
What people are really looking for is a step-change—something that will double battery life. We don’t know where that’s going to come from, but we certainly think there’s more optimization to do in the racing world within the existing LiPo tech.
– Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of DRL
The following years have seen Horbaczewski proved right about the potential to expand LiPo technology to squeeze even more life out of a battery. In March of this year, Impossible Aerospace announced the release of a record-breaking battery that can keep a drone in the air for up to two hours.
The battery is used in Impossible Aerospace’s Impossible US-1 drone. The same month it was released, police in Campbell, CA used it to maintain aerial surveillance throughout a long standoff in a possible hostage situation, demonstrating yet another benefit of longer flight times.
But it could be that the future of drone power lies beyond LiPo batteries.
In 2018 the Quaternium’s HYBRiX.20 fuel-electric quadcopter, a hybrid drone powered by a mixture of electricity and gasoline, achieved a record flight time of four hours and forty minutes.
Last year also saw the release of the Narwhal 2, a new hydrogen-powered drone, was released by BSHARK in partnership with MicroMultiCopter (MMC). The Narwhal 2 runs on hydrogen fuel cells, which can generate more energy than a LiPo battery of the same weight because they have a higher energy density.
Most likely the future for extending drone flight times will be full of hybrid solutions for different sizes of drones and varying applications. UAV Turbines’s microturbines may well become the best option for powering larger drones.
What do you think—are tiny jet engines the future of long-range drone flights? Or will we see lots of new power solutions over the coming years? Chime in with your thoughts on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum.