MIT’s Hybrid Drones carry heavier payloads for greater distance

New hybrid gas-to-electric drones from MIT spinout Top Flight Technologies offer an order-of-magnitude increase in range, payload size, and power over battery-powered counterparts. The drones may pave the way for package delivery and human flight.

As co-founder, CEO, and chief technology officer of Top Flight Technologies, Phan is now one of the first entrepreneurs to commercialize hybrid gas-to-electric drones. The drones offer an order-of-magnitude increase in range, payload size, and power over battery-powered counterparts.

Coming to market this fall, the hybrid drones could help make drone package-delivery a reality, and enhance capabilities for crop imaging, military surveillance, emergency response, and remote infrastructure inspection, among other applications. As the startup continues to develop hybrid drone power sources, the technology could also pave the way for human flight.

“The key is having an abundance of power and total energy. That’s what petrol and  gasoline gives you,” Phan says. “Using a high-energy-density energy source like gasoline, and converting it to electric power, and doing it efficiently, gives you the equivalent of a ‘super battery.’”

Many drones run on batteries, flying for 15 to 30 minutes between charges, with maximum payloads of 5 pounds. Top Flight’s drone can fly for more than 2.5 hours ­— enabling ranges of up to 100 miles — while carrying up to 20 pounds.

The drone can be customized for any number of industrial-strength applications. The engine weighs about 17 pounds and can generate up to 10 kilowatts of power. It uses gasoline to generate the power that drives the lift motors, keeps backup batteries charged, and powers onboard electronics including computing, sensors, and communications equipment. The onboard batteries never need recharging; users just need to refill the gas tank and fly again. Flight control can operate in fully-or semi-autonomous modes.

Hybrid electric engines are easier to build in cars, because, among other things, there are fewer weight and volume restraints. Engines on drones must be small and lightweight while delivering the same amount of power. This produces major technical challenges with excessive vibration and heat

Using various heat transfer and control techniques — such as strategically incorporating small fans, cooling fins, and rubber vibration dampeners — the team solved those issues and initially slapped a prototype hybrid engine on a generic drone. Their calculations predicted the hybrid drone would fly for an hour — but it flew for nearly 2.5 hours.

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