HyLight (YC S23) – Hydrogen airships to inspect energy infrastructure

Hi HN, we’re Thomas, Martin, Théo, and Josef, cofounders at HyLight (https://www.hylight.aero). We build and operate autonomous hydrogen airships to inspect energy infrastructure like pipelines and power lines. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuW5ur8ER7A.

Energy infrastructure operators (utility companies) struggle with conducting precise inspections of their assets. It is extremely important for them because they need to make sure that the network is in good condition to avoid outages and leaks. This infrastructure has big impacts when it is malfunctioning. For instance, methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure represent 4% of global carbon emissions every year (and approx. $7B worth of losses in Northern America and Europe).

Gas and power networks are physically so large (more than 47M miles globally) that millions of miles of inspections must be done each year. Currently the most used solution is helicopters (used on 90% of inspections). Helicopters are dangerous, have a high carbon footprint and are costly to use. Plus, helicopter service providers have to go as fast as they can to save their margins. So the data quality is not optimal at all.

Our airship (the “HyLighter”) does exactly what is needed to gather a lot of precise information from the air. It flies slowly and can hover almost indefinitely, it consumes little energy, allowing great range for inspections. It can simultaneously mount all the sensors that are required for the inspections (HQ cameras, LiDAR, infrared, leak detection devices...). Plus, due to its size, we can write stuff on it to tell nearby residents what we are doing.

How does it work? It is basically a drone airship. We use a lighter-than-air gas in the envelope (helium or hydrogen) for buoyancy. We have a H2 tank and fuel cell transforming H2 into power for all the systems. In terms of engines we built 2 gyros (gyroscopes engines) at the rear and front of the airship. They allow us to have vectorial thrust and therefore to be extremely maneuverable. The sensors are fixed under the HyLighter on gimbals and can easily “follow” the linear infrastructure that is inspected.

When we began working on H2 and drones, we quickly realized that there was a problem with the weight of H2 tanks. The tanks have to be very strong to contain enough H2 which is extremely low in density. Then, we realized that we could use the "problem" inherent to H2 (very low density) to our advantage. We simply needed to use H2 as a lifting gas and power source. The envelope of the airship becomes the tank!

The HyLighter is more efficient than other current solutions. As mentioned, helicopters are the most-used at present. Compared to those, we use less energy, emit less GHG, have better data quality, and less risks for human beings as the HyLighter is unmanned. Compared to quad drones, we have longer flight time and more payload, allowing for various simultaneous sensors collecting data—we can simultaneously mount all the sensors that are required for the inspections (HQ cameras, LiDAR, infrared, leak detection devices). Compared to plane drones, our flight speed is lower so we can collect better data and less ground risk. Compared to satellites, we have a lot more precision (actually they can't even be used for most of our operational use cases).

The genesis of HyLight is that Théo wanted to work on new uses of H2 and drones when he was at school. He was joined by Martin who studied in the same engineering school, then by Josef who's Martin's BFF and then by me. I met Théo when we finished our studies in UC Berkeley last year and we all launched HyLight together. As we kept working on it, we gained more and more interest from pipeline and power line operators and we realized that there was indeed a big problem.

HyLight is at the stage where we have our first POCs. Our first paid flight is in the coming weeks. Our business model is straightforward: inspection as a service. We charge a price per kilometer depending on length, location and type of data collected.

I discovered HN not too long ago and I’m impressed with the engagement in tech and innovation of this community! I’m very interested to get your opinion on HyLight. Maybe some people work in the energy industry and know a thing or two about energy infra inspections that we could learn from? If so please tell us what you think, be it red flags or positive stuff! Also, as individuals, how would you feel seeing a big drone airship flying in the air near your home? We look forward to any and all comments!

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andrey azimov by Andrey Azimov