Experts anticipate sales of commercial drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to surpass $12B in 2021 as these devices continue to bring innovation to a variety of industries including agriculture, disaster relief, and much more. However, with lithium-ion batteries as their main source of power, drones are at risk for overheating and even fire. According to the CPSC, there are over 200 recorded safety incidents involving the lithium-ion batteries in drones. Of those 200, 50 percent of them occurred while the drone was charging, an indication that an increase in incidents could make the drone market as dangerous as the hoverboard crisis that started in December 2015.
As the numbers and applications of drones increase, so does the need for standards for safer product development and operations. To help prevent future safety incidents involving lithium-ion batteries in drones, UL, a global safety science company, has been developing a certification program (per the requirements of UL 3030) to help reassure users and regulators that the drone’s electrical system has been evaluated to the appropriate safety standards available.
UL’s experts Ken Boyce, Director of Principal Engineers for UL’s Energy and Power Technologies business, was kind enough to share with us about the development of the UL 3030 requirements and what this growth in UAV applications means for the industry.
What are the risks of using lithium-ion batteries (standard in the drone industry)?
Lithium-ion batteries are a popular technology with favorable attributes such as energy density, so they are a common choice for many energy applications. They are generally very safe if they are properly designed, manufactured and integrated into a battery system. However, there are some safety vulnerabilities that have emerged with this technology. Lithium-ion batteries have flammable electrolytes, so it is important from a risk perspective to mitigate fire conditions. We have seen these risks play out in the headlines and the nearly 22,000 safety incidents from 2012 to 2017 involving lithium-ion batteries. This concern is what has driven UL’s leading safety science work in the lithium battery sector.
What causes lithium-ion batteries in drones to overheat and how can manufacturers help mitigate risks?
Lithium-ion batteries can be susceptible to a phenomenon known as thermal runaway. If the battery has an internal fault, contaminants, or conductive dendrites, or is exposed to physical abuses or overtemperature conditions, the electrochemistry of the battery can accelerate. This causes temperature increases, which causes continued acceleration of the electrochemistry. If this self-perpetuating condition causes the battery to generate more heat than can be dissipated, it is thermal runaway. Lithium-ion batteries in thermal runaway can result in fires or explosions and can induce thermal runaway in adjacent batteries, causing a cascading hazard. Proper design, manufacturing, testing, certification and integration of batteries throughout the entire battery system are all critical aspects of risk mitigation.
What regulations are currently in place to address the issue of the volatility of the lithium-ion battery? Are there any other viable options for powering drones?
Regulations only apply generally to safety of drones including lithium-ion battery systems. However, as we have seen with incidents involving battery systems in other products, there are lessons to be leveraged in promoting safety. We know that there have been over 200 documented incidents involving drone batteries, with over half occurring while the drone was charging. That is one reason that UL’s proactive work to support drone battery safety is so important, and we are glad to support the industry’s work to mitigate these risks. Different power sources have been and will be considered for different drone applications, but based on the favorable energy density we expect lithium-ion technology to be the main focus.
Who is UL, and what is their history in the drone industry?
UL is a trusted global safety science company that has been supporting safe living and working environments for well over a century. We continue to focus our worldwide team of scientists, engineers, technicians and experts in supporting the advancement of new technologies in a safe and sustainable manner through research, standards, testing, certification, validation and education. While many aspects of the drone industry are developing rapidly, we are glad to partner with the industry leaders to advance confidence in the safety of drones.
What are the requirements of UL 3030 and the accreditation process for manufacturers?
UL 3030, Safety of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, was published to address safety of electrical systems of commercial drones. It contains a robust set of construction and performance requirements to assess the safety of drone electrical systems. It is in the final stages of being published as the joint American and Canadian National Standard. UL 3030 contains requirements for normal, abnormal and abuse conditions, battery systems, environmental assessments, and other safety-critical aspects of commercial drones. UL helps manufacturers bring safe drone products to market through a variety of ways.
What would the process of certification look like? How does this improve safety for drone operators? What are the implications for drone manufacturers?
Manufacturers ask UL to conduct assessments to the requirements of UL 3030. UL will request samples and information about the construction, and initiate a construction review and testing program. Once evidence has been built to demonstrate compliance to the requirements, UL certification is established. After that UL conducts a factory surveillance program to audit the ongoing production of the certified products from a safety perspective. This independent certification promotes confidence not just for users, but also for distributors, specifiers, employers, and others that the safety of the drone has been diligently addressed and verified. We are very pleased that Intel recently received the first UL 3030 certification of a commercial drone, and expect many more of those certifications to occur in the future.
What predictions do you have for the future of the drone industry, and the use of lithium-ion batteries?
We see intense demand for society to benefit from the new capabilities that drone technologies offer resulting in significant growth in the industry, to approximately $80B by 2025. For this projection to be achieved, a safe and sustainable deployment is essential and we are glad to be working with key stakeholders to make this a reality.
Lithium-ion batteries will be the workhorse for the foreseeable future, with projections of 4-6 billion cells per year. All of these factors and more are driving battery applications:
- Increased societal demands for mobility and effective portable power.
- The burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) revolution driving distributed assets which demand remote power.
- The world’s continued focus on renewable energy technologies, which are dramatically enhanced by energy storage.
- Electrification of the transport fleet, from consumer electric vehicles to public transport to the Boeing Dreamliner.
UL will continue to build the safety science, share our findings with the technical community, and support the safest batteries and battery products for our world.