Full steam ahead for eco-friendly French drones

Inventors are transforming infrastructure inspections with the Hylight, a helium-filled drone dirigible, and the Aéronde, an innovative balloon aircraft

The 15-metre Aéronde runs on battery-powered electric motors

French inventors are steaming ahead with ideas for lighter-than-air projects, with one for a drone dirigible, suitable for inspecting electricity lines, railways and pipelines, raising €3.7 million to help it get certified by authorities.

Called the Hylight, the helium gas-filled drone will be 12 metres long and powered by a fuel-cell generating electricity for its two motors. 

It will carry a full range of cameras and sensors, and be able to cover around 300 km a day, being guided by a pre-loaded map linked with GPS systems.

“The interest is to be able to go slowly and at the same time to be able to photograph in very high resolution down to a millimetre or so, so that if there are any problems detected, the engineers can have a good look and decide what to do,” Martin Bocken, the company CEO and one of three co-founders told The Connexion.

Long flight time

At the moment electricity lines in rural France are inspected every couple of years by helicopters which have to fly low over them and have a pilot and a photographer who takes photos of any likely problems they see.

“Using a drone like ours will be safer, much quieter and much better for the environment because a helicopter puts out a tonne of carbon dioxide every hour of flight,” said Mr Bocken.

The Hylight will be able to fly in winds of up to 40kph, and one tank of hydrogen will last for 10 hours of flight. It is stored in a trailer which can also act as an operations room and workshop – allowing different sensors to be swapped on the aircraft for a variety of jobs.

Six prototypes have already been built, and the final version should be certified for commercial work in the next two years, and start earning money for the company in 2026. 

The airships will be built at the company’s headquarters at a private airstrip just south of Paris.

Read more: How you can fly to Nice, Paris, Marseille, or Bordeaux from the cockpit

Another innovative project, with a 15-metre circumference doughnut-shaped balloon, and with battery-powered electric motors like those found on a drone, had its first flight from Grenoble Airport in the winter, and has flown test flights regularly since then.

Called the Aéronde, the device is designed for two people and is aiming to be certified this summer under the rules for microlight aircraft, which are not as strict as for heavier aeroplanes.

Again, inspecting electricity and other networks is seen as being one of its uses, but the inventors also see it being sold to private pilots who have microflight licences.

“Up in the Alps near us there are lots of hydro-electric dams which have power lines and high pressure water pipes that are very difficult to get to,” inventor and CEO Nicolas Sorin told The Connexion.

Read more: Delivery of medicines by drone tested in south-west France

“We see some leisure use but our business plan is based on being able to provide inspection and repair services – drones are ideal for inspection but getting an engineer on the ground or right next to the wire so he can fix it needs something like our wonderful machine!”

The Aéronde can fly at around 20kph for four hours before its batteries need to be recharged, or it can rest for eight hours, with its motors keeping it steady against winds of up to 20kph.

Machines are customisable for specific purposes, and will probably cost €300,000 each.