The US Navy's New Solar Aircraft Will Fly For 90 Days Without Landing

A long strip of solar panels on both wings will allow the Skydweller to fly autonomously for months.
Chris Young

The US Navy is working on an uncrewed aircraft called Skydweller that is capable of staying in the air for 90 days without needing to land thanks to large strips of solar panels on both of its wings, a report by New Scientist explains.

The company behind the aircraft, Skydweller Aero, is a U.S.-Spanish aerospace firm developing the technology to enable the U.S. Navy to keep a constant watchful eye over the areas surrounding its ships.

In order to stay airborne for so long, the 236-foot wingspan aircraft houses 2,900 square feet (269.4188 meters) of photovoltaic cells, allowing it to generate up to 2 kilowatts of power. Skydweller Aero also plans to fit its aircraft with hydrogen fuel cells as a backup in case the solar energy harvesting plane goes through a prolonged spell of bad weather.

The Skydweller is a new iteration on the Solar Impulse 2, a crewed solar aircraft that traversed the globe in 2015 and 2016. Skydweller Aero founders John Parkes and Robert Miller purchased the intellectual property and machinery of the Swiss Solar Impulse project before setting out to make their own aircraft.

Solar aircraft will be a huge cost saver for the US Navy

For Skydweller, the company removed the pilot, allowing for a longer range and more payload capacity. The new aircraft can hold approximately 800 lb (360 kg) of radar and camera equipment, according to Aviation Today

"For us, if you’re flying 90 days with one aircraft, that’s two takeoffs and landings versus… hundreds," John Parkes told Aviation Today in June. "Being able to fly thousands of miles, persist over an area for 30-60 days and fly back is a differentiator," Parkes continued. "It’s a huge cost savings to the U.S. government when you look at the whole cost of doing a lot of the national security missions that we have."

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Skydweller Aero aims to test autonomous flight, including autonomous take-off, landing, and fully autonomous flight tests over the coming months. Once those tests are complete, it will then start long-endurance testing, with the goal of operating for 90 days or more at a time. As is often the case with military and space technologies, the new technology, which constitutes a great leap for renewable energy-powered flight, will likely eventually find its way to powering civilian aircraft in one form or another.