Piasecki awarded contract for H2 fuel cell powered rotorcraft evaluation


Piasecki Aircraft Corporation has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract by the US Department of Energy (DoE).

The contract will see Piasecki carry out a study focused on the feasibility of using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) urban air mobility rotorcraft. The firm has already completed the first phase of the multiphase program and is on track to begin the second phase later this year.

“The study is the first step; only by testing can we validate the assumptions. However, testing in the labs has confirmed the power per cm2 we anticipated and the cyclic degradation after the ‘break-in period’ levels off as expected,” John Piasecki, president and CEO of Piasecki Aircraft told us. 

The Department of Energy’s request for this groundbreaking study underscores the urgent need for innovative, affordable zero-carbon vertical mobility solutions to reduce traffic congestion in urban areas, and vehicular greenhouse gasses. The results of our initial study reinforce the potential for hydrogen fuel cells to disrupt the $40bn light helicopter replacement market and contribute to the growth of the emerging air taxi market.”

The SBIR programme requires Piasecki to conduct a technical economic analysis (TEA), develop conceptual and preliminary designs, and ultimately develop and test a hydrogen fuel cell powered VTOL UAM aircraft at scale. The first stage compares hydrogen technology to comparable internal combustion engine and battery rotorcraft to determine key metrics such as mission performance, greenhouse gases (GHGs) abatement potential, total cost of ownership and technology readiness level.

The initial study conducted by Piasecki provided a detailed comparison between a baseline internal combustion Robinson R44 helicopter and three variants: hydrogen fuel cell propulsion with gaseous hydrogen, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion with liquid hydrogen and battery-powered propulsion. 

Utilising the DoE’s Techno-economic Energy & Carbon Heuristic Tool for Early-Stage Technologies, the study demonstrated that hydrogen fuel cell and battery variants have negligible GHG emissions during use and that all variants abate more than 1,300 tons of GHG emissions over five years compared to the R44 powered by an internal combustion engine conducting the same UAM air taxi mission.

 “We expected that the data would show it would take longer to recoup the upfront cost of the liquid hydrogen tank system (CAPEX) but instead it resulted in quicker and less refuel times which increased the revenue to offset the CAPEX,” said Piasecki.

Piasecki recently announced a $37m contract with the US Air Force to accelerate development of HTPEM hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system for its forthcoming PA-890 Slowed Rotor Compound Helicopter, which is expected to be the world’s first zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell powered commercial helicopter. In partnership with ZeroAvia, Piasecki will develop and test HTPEM hydrogen fuel cells for VTOL applications, including a HAXEL proof-of-concept flight demonstrator and a full scale 660kW HTPEM hydrogen fuel cell propulsion test stand for the PA-890.