BY vICTOR TANGERMANN
The US Navy is developing an uncrewed aircraft that can remain airborne for 90 days at a time thanks to massive solar panels on each of its wings, New Scientist reports.
The aircraft, evocatively called Skydweller and built by US-Spanish aerospace company Skydweller Aero, could allow the Navy to keep a continuous eye on the surrounding seas while escorting ships months at a time, a major leap for renewable energy-powered aircraft.
The plane builds on the Solar Impulse 2, a crewed solar aircraft that flew around the world in 2015 and 2016. The company converted the design into the Skydweller by removing the pilot seat, which allows for a longer range and more space for larger payloads, among other upgrades and adjustments.
The resulting aircraft has a 236-foot wing span and is covered in 2,900 square feet of photovoltaic cells that generate up to 2 kilowatts of power. It can hold up to 800 pounds of radar and camera equipment, according to Aviation Today.
“We are currently following our plan to test autonomous flight, then autonomous take-off, then autonomous landing and finally our first fully autonomous flight,” Skydweller Aero CEO Robert Miller told New Scientist. “Once all this has been proven, we will move into long-endurance testing with the goal of operating for 90-plus days.”
The US Navy is currently operating much bigger drones that can remain airborne for just 30 hours during maritime patrols. Longer flights however could prove particularly useful on a wider range of missions.
“For us, if you’re flying 90 days with one aircraft, that’s two takeoffs and landings versus… hundreds,” Skydweller Aero co-founder John Parkes told Aviation Today last month.
The company is also planning to fit the Skydweller wit hydrogen fuel cells to boost performance or serve as a backup in case of bad weather.