Just prior to the Dubai Airshow Leonardo announced that it was to become a minority partner and the lead technology investor in the Skydweller project, which is taking the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft that circumnavigated the world and developing it into a platform that can be used for communications relay and persistent intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) tasks.
The company behind the project, Skydweller Aero, is a U.S.-based startup that has established a Spanish subsidiary with facilities in Madrid and the Castilla-La Mancha region. Skydweller acquired the full intellectual property to the Solar Impulse 2, and the aircraft itself, in early September. Over the course of 2015/16 the aircraft made aviation history with a global circumnavigation purely on solar power, a journey that began and ended in Abu Dhabi.
An engineering team is already working in Castilla-La Mancha on the unmanned derivative, including some engineers from the original Solar Impulse team and unmanned experts from Northrop Grumman’s special projects division. The team is pursuing an aggressive schedule to get an unmanned aircraft into the air, a process facilitated by the previous certification and 1,250 flying hours of experience gained with the Solar Impulse 2.
Initially, the team is focusing on a manned “return-to-flight” campaign to get the aircraft back into the air, which should be accomplished in the first quarter of next year. By the third quarter, the aircraft is due to have been converted to an optionally piloted configuration, which would allow the production craft’s unmanned systems to be tested with a safety pilot on board. In the meantime, Skydweller is building a completely unmanned vehicle, which should fly in 2021.
Skydweller is envisaged as a 90-day endurance aircraft that operates between 15,000 and 45,000 feet. The endurance is mainly limited by the time-between-overhaul requirements of components and the need to re-tune the solar system to cater for seasonal variations.
A key feature of the craft is its ability to carry between 300 and 800 kilograms of payload, depending on operating latitude and season. This payload is much greater than other long-endurance platforms and is made possible by removing the 1,200 kilograms of the pilot and supporting equipment. The aircraft's 2,900 sq ft of solar cells is also capable of generating an unprecedented 2 kW of continuous power for payload operation and has a sophisticated power management system that would permit higher power to be provided to the payloads for noncontinuous use.