French startup HyLight gets $4 million to develop hydrogen-powered small airship 


French startup HyLight announced it has closed a $4 million (€3.7 million) seed round to advance towards the further development and certification of a hydrogen-powered airship. 

HyLight, which is a graduate of Silicon Valley’s renowned Y Combinator startup acceleration program, is developing a small airship to perform aerial inspections of energy infrastructure, including power lines, oil and gas pipelines, roads and rail lines. 

Speaking to AeroTime, HyLight’s co-founder and CEO, Martin Bocken, explained how the idea to create this company came out of the realization that most inspections are still performed today by costly helicopters. 

Drones offer a lower cost option, but they usually have low endurance and limited range, making them often an inefficient option when it comes to monitoring tens or even hundreds of miles of infrastructure. 

“The challenge is to fly at very low speed for a very long time”, explained Bocken.  

The HyLight founders started their project with the idea of developing a classical drone that could solve this conundrum. Hydrogen, a fuel with high energy density, would provide the drone with enhanced endurance, but given the volumetric requirements of this element in its gas form, it required the use of large cylinders. The solution adopted was, then, to pivot towards an airship concept. 

In Hylight’s airship buoyancy is provided by helium gas, while propulsion depends on its own patented powertrain, which combines a hydrogen fuel cell powering an electric motor.  

The airship is small enough that it fits inside a trailer. 

“The truck is like a mobile hangar, it allows us to deploy the airship wherever it is needed” stated Bocken, adding that HyLight’s airship can stay up to 10 hours airborne, cruising at a speed of 35 kilometers (21 miles) per hour. It can carry a 10-kilogram payload that can be customized to meet the needs of the customer, whether standard cameras, thermal cameras, methane detectors (which are used in pipeline inspections), or a combination of these. 

HyLight is planning to use the funds to get the airship certified as soon as possible (they are already operating a test prototype). Bocken expects that by 2030 they would have been able to build a fleet of at least 200 of such airships. 

The entrepreneur also explained that HyLight plans not only to assemble the airships (the different parts and components are sourced from the market), but also to offer “inspection as a service” to companies in the energy and infrastructure sector. 

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