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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Plug Power plots move into aeromobility

When Alaka’i Technologies revealed its hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered Skai air taxi in late May, it highlighted the potential of fuel cells to serve as an alternative to batteries in the emerging aeromobility space.

Where will those fuel cells come from? Alaka’i hasn’t yet disclosed its own supplier, but at least one hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer is eager to move into air taxis: Plug Power. Headquartered in upstate New York, Plug Power has already widely deployed its hydrogen fuel cell solutions throughout the material handling industry, and thinks it can do something similar for aeromobility.

Plug Power hydrogen fuel cell forklift
Plug Power already has 25,000 hydrogen fuel cells deployed in manufacturing and distribution centers. Plug Power Photo

“We’re really interested in how we ultimately can move into aerial taxis,” Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh said in an interview with eVTOL.com. “There are certain attributes of fuel cells that make a great deal of sense for assets where range is important, where power density is important. . . . You probably can get four to five times more flight time using a combination of fuel cell and batteries than you can achieve just running a pure battery.”

According to Marsh, Plug Power already has over 25,000 fuel cells deployed in manufacturing and distribution centers, powering zero-emission electric forklifts for customers like Walmart, Amazon, and BMW. (Plug Power touts these vehicles as requiring less space and downtime for charging than battery-powered forklifts, in addition to offering superior performance in freezer environments and at low states of charge.) Two weeks ago, the company announced an agreement with electric vehicle manufacturer StreetScooter to deliver 100 hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered delivery trucks for on-road use to Deutsche Post DHL.

Now, the company has taken a key step in entering the aviation market with the acquisition of the Canadian company EnergyOR, a developer of compact fuel cells for niche applications including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In 2007, Montreal-based EnergyOR became the first and only company to fly a fuel-cell-powered UAV in Canada, and it has chalked up a number of endurance records in the years since. In 2015, it developed the H2Quad 400, which it describes as the first fuel-cell-powered quadrotor to operate outdoors in a real-world environment.

The press release announcing the acquisition cites benefits for both companies. The deal will allow Plug Power to consider robotic and wearable applications for hydrogen fuel cells, and potentially incorporate EnergyOR’s lightweight systems into current Plug Power offerings. Meanwhile, EnergyOR — which will maintain its status and presence as a Canadian company — will be able to leverage Plug Power’s proprietary technology to improve its products’ cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

EnergyOR H2Quad 400 multicopter
EnergyOR’s H2Quad 400 was the first fuel-cell-powered quadrotor to operate in a real-world environment. EnergyOR Photo

However, the acquisition of EnergyOR will also gain Plug Power specific aviation expertise that could prove valuable as it expands into air taxis.

“Some of the talent that exists there, has had long experience in aviation,” Marsh told eVTOL.com. After looking at the space for a couple of years, “we came to the conclusion that [EnergyOR] had developed some unique, cost-effective technology, and that they could give us real-life experience today in the air, as well as [give us] some of their employees’ expertise, who worked in the larger aircraft industry in the past.”

Marsh said that Plug Power envisions being a supplier to eVTOL manufacturers and not an aircraft developer itself: “I think that’s [our] expertise, is fuel cell systems, and I think there are people with greater expertise in how to design aerial taxis.” Marsh confirmed that Plug Power has already been in discussions with aircraft developers, but declined to identify which ones.

However, Plug Power has more to contribute to the aeromobility space than just fuel cell technology — it also has unique and valuable experience in building hydrogen infrastructure. The daunting prospect of developing the necessary infrastructure is often cited as one of the greatest obstacles to adopting fuel cells in air taxis.

Marsh explained that Plug Power faced the same problem when it began deploying hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered forklifts in distribution warehouses; it couldn’t find anyone to build the infrastructure it needed cost-effectively. So the company developed that capability in-house.

Plug Power hydrogen infrastructure
Plug Power has built an extensive network of hydrogen infrastructure that it monitors continuously as part of its daily operations. Plug Power Photo

“At this time I actually have built more hydrogen infrastructure than anyone in the world,” Marsh claimed. “We’ve developed large systems and small systems, and EnergyOR has developed some capability in that area. We think we can refine it dramatically to provide cost-effective simple hydrogen infrastructure, which we’ve been able to do in material handling, which quite honestly is more complex to start.”

According to Marsh, Plug Power operates in many settings today where “you have to work as good as the grid.” That has meant developing tools and techniques that allow it to monitor its infrastructure continuously and address many problems remotely. From a safety perspective, Plug Power has focused on creating simple, reliable installations that can be managed by “people who don’t have a lot of training to use it — I think that’s really important,” he said.

The company has also learned less obvious lessons, too. “If I think about what we’ve gotten good at, one is that we’ve gotten real good at permitting, which may seem like a simple issue, but often with certain jurisdictions it’s the most difficult,” Marsh noted. “I have people who can set up permits rather rapidly, I’ve done it, and we’ve done it in different places around the world.”

He also pointed out that establishing the infrastructure required to recharge fleets of battery-powered air taxis is no easy task itself. “When you start trying to deliver heavy energy levels . . . working with utilities delivering that sort of power is not as simple as people think,” he said.

“I actually think that long-term, [hydrogen infrastructure] is a simpler problem to address. Today I build these huge infrastructures in three months and have them up and running. I don’t know if you can get utilities to do the same thing.”

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