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Skydweller Takes Solar Impulse To The Unmanned Community By Julian Nettlefold






BATTLESPACE Editor Julian Nettlefold interviewed JD Parkes, joint founder of Skydweller with Dr Robert Miller a former Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems veteran.

“What is the background to the formation of Skydweller?” The Editor asked.

“Skydweller purchased the Solar Impulse aircraft and IP from Solar Impulse, a project that set the world record for manned solar-powered flight. Skydweller is a U.S.-Spanish aerospace company developing renewably powered aircraft for the defense and commercial industries to support land and maritime monitoring missions, industrial geo-information services, telecommunications, and emergency services. The platform will be capable of persisting for up to 90-days, carrying unprecedently large payloads to better serve military needs. Skydweller was founded by Dr. Robert Miller and John ‘JD’ Parkes in 2019 based on decades of joint experience in airborne and unmanned systems technology within the defense and private sector. The company’s European HQ is in Spain and we have a US offices and facilities, thus all our technology is ITAR free. We have assembled a strong team of engineers to develop new systems based on our experience in unmanned systems technology. We aim to develop the world’s first fully electric unmanned aircraft capable of carrying large payloads with unlimited range and ultra-persistent endurance. Leonardo led our Series A Funding and now has a minority stake in the company.” JD Parkes said.

Solar Impulse Background

Solar Impulse was a Swiss long-range experimental solar-powered aircraft project, and also the name of the project’s two operational aircraft. The privately financed project was led by Swiss engineer and businessman André Borschberg and Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard, who co-piloted Breitling Orbiter 3, the first balloon to circle the world non-stop. The Solar Impulse project’s goals were to make the first circumnavigation of the Earth by a piloted fixed-wing aircraft using only solar power and to bring attention to clean technologies.

The aircraft is a single-seated monoplane powered by photovoltaic cells; it is capable of taking off under its own power. The prototype, often referred to as Solar Impulse 1, was designed to remain airborne up to 36 hours. It conducted its first test flight in December 2009. In July 2010, it flew an entire diurnal solar cycle, including nearly nine hours of night flying, in a 26-hour flight. Piccard and Borschberg completed successful solar-powered flights from Switzerland to Spain and then Morocco in 2012,  and conducted a multi-stage flight across the US in 2013.

A second aircraft, completed in 2014 and named Solar Impulse 2, carries more solar cells and more powerful motors, among other improvements. On 9 March 2015, Piccard and Borschberg began to circumnavigate the globe with Solar Impulse 2, departing from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft was scheduled to return to Abu Dhabi in August 2015 after a multi-stage journey around the world. By June 2015, the plane had traversed Asia, and in July 2015, it completed the longest leg of its journey, from Japan to Hawaii. During that leg, the aircraft’s batteries sustained thermal damage that took months to repair. Solar Impulse 2 resumed the circumnavigation in April 2016, when it flew to California. It continued across the US until it reached New York City in June 2016. Later that month, the aircraft crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. It stopped in Egypt before returning to Abu Dhabi on 26 July 2016, more than 16 months after it had left, completing the approximately 42,000-kilometre (26,000-mile) first circumnavigation of the Earth by a piloted fixed-wing aircraft using only solar power.

“How did you select your platform?” The Editor said.

“We studied similar manned and unmanned solar aircraft and found that the Solar Impulse gave the best combination of payload capability and airframe strength and rigidity. Ou research showed us that other systems had suffered rigidity problems when descending from high altitude operations of 50-15,000 ft through turbulence, causing a crash in one case. Solar Impulse’s high technology design and large wing area to accommodate a pilot gave us that extra payload capability when the man was removed from the loop with all the accompanying systems required to support the pilot. This gives us a flight duration of 90 days at high altitude, at a speed of 140kmh with a 1600kgs payload, perfect for many defense and civil surveillance and ISTAR missions. We eventually hope to develop the system to fly 24/7 365 days of the year.” JD Parkes said.

Skydweller will also be free from the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, with Leonardo acting as the “main industrial partner,” a spokesman said, as well as prime contractor for sales to Italy, the U.K., Poland and NATO. The system will comply with European export laws and will not be subject to ITAR, allowing “the aircraft to satisfy government and commercial needs around the world,” Leonardo said.

Developers see the Skydweller as pushing the limits for payloads for solar flight, while operating at medium altitudes — lower than the high altitudes for which such aircraft have usually been designed, and allowing onboard sensors and transmitters to operate at closer range to the ground. Aimed at civil and military customers, the drone is expected to offer surveillance, communications and navigation capabilities, and be interoperable with existing air bases.

Development and construction of the new aircraft is to take place in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region. Leonardo has embedded 6 engineers to learn from Skydweller’s advanced-engineering team.

“This is certainly an exciting and ambitious programme.” The Editor said.

“It certainly is, it is a very exciting project. The first phase of the program will involve converting the manned aircraft into an optionally piloted vehicle with autonomous flights planned for 2021. The second phase envisages an unmanned version flying shortly thereafter.” JD Parkes said.

Skydweller Specifications:

  • Wingspan (72 m)
  • Weight (2,500 kg)
  • Altitude (14,000 + m)
  • Cruise Speed (<100 kts)
  • Payload (up to 400 kg)
  • Payload Power (2+ kw)
  • Endurance (90+ days)
  • Range (Unlimited)

(Source: Wikipedia, Defense News)

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