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Piasecki targets first crewed flight of hydrogen-powered helicopter this fall

By Jen Nevans | May 13, 2024

Estimated reading time 3 minutes, 30 seconds.

Piasecki Aircraft said it is on schedule to achieve its first crewed test flight of a hydrogen-powered helicopter this fall.

The flight will be carried out using Piasecki’s hydrogen coaxial electric lift (HAXEL) testbed — an edm aerotec CoAX 2D two-passenger helicopter, with its piston-powered engine replaced by a 660-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system.

“We, along with ZeroAvia, are going to fly HAXEL this year and we’re excited to be the first manned flight of [hydrogen] fuel cells,” said John Scott, program manager of hydrogen propulsion technology for Piasecki, during a Vertical Aviation International (VAI) webinar on May 9.

Piasecki is developing what it hopes to be the first FAA-certified hydrogen-powered PA-890 helicopter under existing part 27 standards. The PA-890 will be a four-bladed, slowed-rotor winged compound aircraft that Piasecki claims will offer a 50-percent reduction in direct operating costs and reduced noise compared with traditional helicopters.

Through the U.S. Air Force’s AFWERX program, Piasecki and ZeroAvia are testing next-generation high-temperature proton exchange membrane (HT-PEM) hydrogen fuel cell technology, which Piasecki plans to use to power the PA-890 aircraft.

“The [PA-890] was actually sized, built and shaped to support the fuel cell technology, so the PA-890 and the fuel cells are in parallel development paths to make the aircraft as efficient as possible,” Scott said.

The company is working with the Air Force to finish and demonstrate its full-scale high energy density fuel cell system, with an aim to fly its hydrogen-powered HAXEL demonstrator by October 2024. Scott claims the fuel cell technology is “already five times what any battery can do. We’ll continue to outpace batteries and double in technology and in energy density.”

But Scott said the company’s goal isn’t to compete against battery technology. “Our real goal is to be equivalent to a turbine engine, and I’m 100 percent sure we’re going to get there. I truly believe that fuel cells, particularly high temperature fuel cells, are the solution for eVTOLs and you’re going to see more and more of it.”

Unlike eVTOL startups, Piasecki isn’t going after the typical urban air mobility (UAM) or air taxi market. The company is building its 7,000-pound (3,175-kilogram) helicopter for initial launch customers in the emergency medical services (EMS) market.

“We can also use it for anything else, but we went after the hardest market and the hardest design first,” Scott said. “There are a lot of requirements that go into [an EMS] helicopter that are more advanced than what you would get for just a payload-carrying vehicle.”

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