As it achieves its first autonomous flight, solar-powered Skydweller has seen interest from NATO and Five Eyes countries

March 6 2023

Shephard’s Defence Insight

Last month, Skydweller, a large solar-powered UAV, made its first fully autonomous flight.

The aircraft can stay aloft for months or more than a year and is being offered as a concept for military intelligence applications.

Speaking to Shephard, Skydweller Aero CEO Robert Miller said: ‘We are a 365-day-a-year aircraft and can carry up to 800lb, depending on the time of year and latitude.

‘We supply, on average, 2 kilowatts over the course of a 24-hour day. We will use the same sensors that are flying on MQ-1C, MQ-9, King Air and PC-12 platforms.’

The solar-powered aircraft can store energy in two ways, in batteries and as potential energy through altitude.

Miller said the aircraft could fly up to 40,000-45,000ft and descend at night to around 10,000ft, using stored potential energy.

‘It is not a stealth aircraft but is more survivable than an MQ-1C or MQ-9, or typical propeller-driven manned aircraft (King Air, PC-12, etc). Usually, the kill chain of tactical propeller aircraft is driven by acoustics, and our aircraft is the quietest aircraft ever built and can even just glide for hours if required,’ he explained.

Skydweller Aero believes that the ability to fly at significant height makes visual detection hard, and the lack of a midwave-IR band heat signature means it cannot be locked onto with MANPADS.

Miller said the target operating region for Skydweller was plus or minus 25-30 degrees of latitude, roughly Miami to Rio De Janeiro  and wrapping around the world.

‘This area is below the subtropical jet stream and allows for station-keeping 365 days a year.

‘During summer months, we can move to higher latitudes where we have more daylight available and can reduce the energy stored as potential energy (altitude swings), avoiding altitudes where winds extend our ability to station keep,’ he added.

Skydweller’s integrated mission planning software uses weather models to predict environmental conditions and avoid problematic weather.

The aircraft has operated for almost 1,300 hours in the so-called ‘solar aircraft death zone’ between zero and 35,000ft.

Miller said this perfect safety record was down to the solution being built as a ‘medium-altitude pseudo-satellite, not a high-altitude version’.

Skydweller is not seen as replacing satellites but offering crossovers for certain missions.

The company is contracted with the USN and has an MoU with the French Air Force and Luxembourg government.

The company also subcontracts to Leonardo for work in the UK.

Miller said several Five Eyes and NATO countries had also shown ‘significant interest’ in the system.