December Italian all-fuel cell flight planned

By Rob Coppinger

A modified Alpi Aviation Pioneer 300 ultralight is expected to fly in June using only batteries. In December it will fly with just fuel cell-derived power.

Called Skyspark, the all-electric prototype is designed to demonstrate take-off and cruise flight using only fuel cell power. The June battery-powered flight is to test the aircraft's all-electric systems as a safety precaution before the fuel cell is used.

A Turin-based company built Skyspark's dedicated electric motor. Liquid-cooled, it can deliver peak power of 75kW, but normally produces 60kW. Its fuel cell, developed by Turin Polytechnic, has a stack of three 20kW cells. Skyspark's designers plan for it to have a 135kt (250km/h) cruise speed and a top speed of 172kt.

"The fuel cell power has other applications such as unmanned air vehicles," says the Skyspark project's leader, aeronautical engineer and former European Space Agency astronaut, Maurizio Cheli. Cheli flew on the 1996 NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-75. He now works for Alenia Aeronautica as a Eurofighter test pilot, although Alenia is not involved in Skyspark. Using batteries Cheli expects Skyspark to have an endurance of about 35min and with the fuel cell about 1h.

The aircraft's development is supported through donations of equipment and people's free time. The Skyspark team hopes to set world records using battery power when it flies at the International Aeronautical Federation's world air games being held in Turin in June.

In Spain in February and March 2008 Boeing Research and Technology Europe flew a battery-assisted fuel cell-powered Diamond Aircraft Dimona. Boeing says the aircraft will not fly again, but that the fuel cell technology will be applied to other projects, although it declines to say what those projects are.

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