In 2016, a strange-looking plane covered in more than 17,000 solar panels gave the world a glimpse of the future of flight. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747, but the weight of an SUV, it circumnavigated the Earth without expending a drop of fuel.
Called Solar Impulse 2, it was the brainchild of Swiss explorer Bertrand Piccard and Swiss engineer Bertrand Borschberg, built to show the potential of renewable energy. After his record-breaking flight, he achieved his goal, but now he’s taking on a new life.
In 2019 it was bought by Skydweller Aero, a US-Spanish startup that aims to turn the plane into the world’s first commercially viable “pseudo-satellite,” capable of doing the work of a satellite in orbit, but with more flexibility and less environmental impact. .
“A pseudosatellite is an aircraft that stays in the air, say, indefinitely,” says Skydweller CEO Robert Miller. “That means 30, 60, 90 days, maybe a year. And as such, it can do basically anything you imagine a satellite can do.” That includes providing telecommunications and imaging of the Earth, as well as disaster response and natural resource monitoring.
Cheaper and greener
Using an aircraft for such applications is more flexible and cheaper, because satellites are expensive to build and have to be launched into orbit via a rocket, usually powered by fossil fuels. It’s also more sustainable, because satellites have a limited lifespan and are eventually decommissioned, often adding to the space debris problem. Recent research found that large constellations of satellites could damage the ozone layer by releasing chemicals as they burn as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
After purchasing the 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 now we have the ability to fly the plane fully autonomously.”
Solar Impulse 2 flying over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on April 23, 2016, during its circumnavigation of the globe.
Takeoffs and landings are still handled by the pilot, but Miller says the next step is to add systems that make them automatic. “After that, we can get the pilot out of the plane. We are in the process of beginning the construction of a second aircraft that has no cabin at all,” he adds. Removing the 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 the plane could be deployed as early as 2023 and that he thinks there will be a market for a fleet of thousands. Companies like Facebook and Google have tested pseudo-satellites in the past, but never developed a commercial product.
“There will certainly be a growing demand for the kind of services that Skydweller provides,” says Jeremiah Gertler, an aviation analyst at aerospace and defense market analysis company Teal Group. “While others offer similar and different solutions for long-duration, high-altitude missions, there is a distinct advantage to being the first ant to the picnic.”
Monitoring the oceans
As was the case with satellites, the project is attracting early interest for government and military applications. The US Navy has invested $5 million in Skydweller to investigate the aircraft’s ability to conduct maritime patrols, for which it currently employs drones that reportedly cannot fly for more than 30 hours, and the Defense Innovation, a Defense organization seeking emerging technology for the US military, has awarded Skydweller a $14 million contract. Miller, however, says that he eventually sees Skydweller as “much more commercial than government-oriented.”
Many of its potential applications have environmental benefits, including monitoring the use of natural resources, for example scanning the ocean for illegal fishing or oil leaks from deep-sea drilling operations. “There are ways to do it with remote sensing from an airplane, but it’s extremely difficult to do it from a satellite,” says Miller.
Telecommunications is likely to be a key use for Skydweller, because using the aircraft to provide Internet or cellular access could be economically viable where satellite or traditional infrastructure would not.
Last November, the company announced a partnership with Telefónica, one of the world’s largest mobile network providers, to develop connectivity solutions that can offer cellular coverage in underserved or underserved regions around the world. Skydweller would operate as a “cellular tower in the sky,” with no physical or carbon footprint. It could also provide temporary communications infrastructure in disaster areas.
Solar Impulse 2 arrives from Geneva at the Skydweller hangar in Albacete, Spain, in July 2020.
Skydweller Aero Inc.
Skydweller could also offer aerial support during search and rescue operations, for example during wildfires, with the flexibility to be able to take off from existing airports, deploy thousands of miles away and stay aloft for months, without carbon emissions. It is capable of flying at night on battery power, using energy stored during the day.
Among the challenges Skydweller will face is the fact that the plane will need sunlight to fly, which will limit its use in certain latitudes, and regulations regarding drones. “Governments haven’t really thought about unmanned vehicles yet, and creating airspace for a long-duration mission would be a new challenge,” says aviation analyst Gertler.
“It’s a real race to see if technology or regulation solves your problems first, but there are plenty of reasons to bet on technology,” he adds. “It seems likely that they will reach the finish line before the government has even started to find the checkered flag.”