HES, which has been developing hydrogen-propulsion systems for drones for the last 12 years, said the Element One would combine ultralight hydrogen fuel-cell technology with a distributed electric aircraft propulsion design that is already in commercial use.
Hydrogen has the advantage of producing water instead of exhaust.
It is being designed to fly four passengers for up to 5,000km, roughly the distance from New York to Los Angeles, depending on whether hydrogen is stored as a gas or liquid.
Although the prototype would carry only four passengers, the planes could be enlarged to 20 people or more, according to HES.
The projected performance is thought to be considerably better than any battery-powered aircraft used, opening the possibility of new flights linking remote areas, using minor runways.
HES this month also unveiled plans for on-site hydrogen generation and is in discussion with industrial-scale producers of the simple gas to explore energy-efficient refuelling using solar or wind.
Hydrogen is seen as a solution to the industry-wide challenge of battery density not matching traditional fuel density, meaning the weight of batteries needed to power aircraft could be an overwhelming problem.
Refuelling would take around 10 minutes, using swapping systems already used by Amazon and Alibaba, HES predicted.
“We are looking at innovative business models and exploring collaboration with companies such as Wingly,” said Taras Wankewycz, chief executive of HES Energy Systems. Wingly, a French flight-sharing startup, argues there is a partnership waiting to be struck between Element One and France’s underused airfields.
Wingly said France’s unused airfields would provide the perfect starting ground for the technology.
“We analysed the millions of destination searches made by the community of 200,000 pilots and passengers on our platform and confirm there is a tremendous need for interregional transport between secondary cities,” Wingly chief executive Emeric de Waziers told the media.
“By combining autonomous emission-free aircraft, such as Element One, digital community-based platforms like Wingly and the existing high-density network of airfields, we can change the paradigm. France alone offers a network of more than 450 airfields but only 10 per cent of these are connected by regular airlines. We will simply connect the remaining 90 per cent.”
Small, short-distance flights are currently restricted to the wealthy elite but hydrogen-electric technology and new agreements with minor airports might open up short flights to different sectors of society.
A possible hydrogen future. Picture credit: HES