CNN is covering the Skydweller, a plane powered by more than 17,000 solar panels, enabling it to stay aloft for month, doing the same work a satellite would do at a slightly lower altitude and much lower cost:
“A pseudo-satellite is an aircraft that stays aloft, let’s say, indefinitely,” says Skydweller’s CEO, Robert Miller. “That means 30, 60, 90 days — maybe a year. And as such, it can do basically anything you would imagine a satellite can do.” That includes providing telecommunications and Earth imaging, as well as disaster response and monitoring natural resources.
After buying Solar Impulse 2, Skydweller spent months modifying it and flew it again for the first time in November 2020. Since then, it has completed 12 test flights, in the sunny weather of southeastern Spain. “We’re in the process of turning it into a drone,” says Miller. “The pilot is still there for safety, but we now have the ability to fly the aircraft totally autonomously.”
Take-offs and landings are still handled by the pilot, but Miller says the next step is adding systems that will make them automatic. “After that, we can remove the pilot from the aircraft. We’re in the process of beginning construction of a second aircraft that has no cockpit at all,” he adds. Removing pilot and cockpit makes room for larger payloads, and is a necessary step to allow the plane to fly for weeks or months (Solar Impulse 2’s longest flight was just under five days).
Miller says that the aircraft could be deployed as early as 2023, and that he believes there will be a market for a fleet of thousands. Companies like Facebook and Google have tested pseudo-satellites in the past, but without ever developing a commercial product.
As was the case with satellites, the project is attracting early interest for governmental and military applications. The US Navy has invested $5 million in Skydweller to investigate the aircraft’s ability to perform maritime patrols, for which it currently employs drones that can reportedly fly no longer than 30 hours, and the Defense Innovation Unit — a Defense organization that seeks emerging technology for the US military — has awarded Skydweller a $14 million contract. Miller, however, says he sees Skydweller as eventually being “much more commercial than government-oriented.”
Many of its potential applications have environmental benefits, including monitoring the use of natural resources — for example, scouting the ocean for illegal fishing or for oil leaks from deep sea drilling operations. “There are ways to do that with remote sensing from an aircraft, but it’s extremely difficult to do it from a satellite,” Miller says.