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Case Western Reserve University Innovation Powers Longer Flights for Drone-Sized Electric Aircraft

Photo by Audrey Ingram, Ohio Federal Research Network
Photo by Audrey Ingram, Ohio Federal Research Network

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Case Western Reserve University Innovation Powers Longer Flights for Drone-Sized Electric Aircraft

Innovations in developing electric drones could become the stepping stone for fully electric passenger jet flights in the future. Recently Vikas Prakash a Case Western Reserve University professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering along with state government and private partners launched a single-propeller fiberglass airplane into the skies at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and it remained airborne for a total of 171 minutes – almost three hours which is double the time of its previous flight time of 91 minutes.

Structural batteries similar to those built into the structure of items – such as cars or satellites which extend run times without increasing bulk enabled the doubling of flight time. If fully electric regional passenger jets fly someday aviation historians will likely point out that the first successful in-air test of the battery technology making it possible happened on a frozen Dayton-area airfield in early 2019.

Over the course of three years Prof. Vikas Prakash proceeded to develop an energy-storage system in which battery cells were incorporated into the autonomous aircraft’s 6-foot (1.8-m) wingspan.

That innovation turns the wings themselves into an extension of the batteries powering the plane which not only extends flight time and distance, but also allows more room in the fuselage for critical payload.  “This test demonstrates that the use of structural battery is a winning concept,” says Prakash adding, “This will allow our crafts to fly longer and/or carry heavier payloads without compromising fuselage space.”

At present the payload would most likely be camera equipment for surveillance, with the vision of developing a fully electric regional jet which could carry materials for delivery and may be scaled up to even carry passengers someday. “That’s the idea, that’s what we’re aiming for in the long run,” said Prakash who was awarded a NASA grant to work toward developing more-electric regional aircrafts.

Prakash’s latest work is related to the NASA project conceptually and is funded by the Partnership for Research in Energy Storage and Integration for Defense and Space Exploration (PRESIDES) program. That partnership is sponsored by the Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN) and managed by the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve. This two-year $450,000 project is known as “Hi-Performance Multifunctional Structural Energy Storage”.

Executive Director OFRN Dennis Andersh said in a statement, “This new battery has a real chance to improve the day-to-day operations of our federal partners, and it has clear commercial applications.”

A Certificate of Waiver or Authorization granted to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton by the Federal Aviation Administration was sought to conduct this test flight.

The test was led by Prakash and Jeff Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of Event38, an Akron-based drone company that specializes in mapping and surveying application. Taylor, a 2009 Case School of Engineering graduate, said in the OFRN news release, “Use of this technology will open new doors to build crafts with more complex and sensitive sensors that small drones usually struggle to carry.”

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