The solar-powered plane that could stay in the air for months… without a drop of fuel

Is he Solar Impulse 2an airplane that can theoretically fly forever, because its fuel is the sun’s rays.

In 2016, a strange-looking plane covered in more than 17,000 solar panels gave the world a glimpse into the future of flight. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but the weight of an SUV, the aircraft circled the Earth without using a drop of fuel.

The Solar Impulse 2, the brainchild of Swiss explorer Bertrand Piccard and Swiss engineer Bertrand Borschberg, was built to showcase the potential of renewable energy. After its record flight, it was mission accomplished… And now the plane gets a new chance.

In 2019, it was bought by Skydweller Aero, a Spanish-American company, with the aim of making it the world’s first commercially viable “pseudo-satellite”, capable of doing the work of a satellite in orbit, but with greater flexibility and less environmental impact.

“A pseudosatellite is an aircraft that stays in the air, let’s say, indefinitely,” Skydweller CEO Robert Miller explained. “That means 30, 60, 90 days…maybe a year. And as such, it can do basically everything you would imagine a satellite to do.” That includes providing telecommunications and imaging of the Earth, as well as disaster response and natural resource monitoring.

Cheaper and more ecological

Using an airplane for this type of work is more flexible and cheaper, because building satellites is expensive and they have to be put into orbit by means of a rocket, which is usually powered by fossil fuels. It is also more sustainable, because satellites have a limited lifespan and end up being retired, often exacerbating the space debris problem. According to recent research, large constellations of satellites could damage the ozone layer by releasing chemicals that burn during their re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

After purchasing the Solar Impulse 2, Skydweller spent months modifying it and got it flying for the first time in November 2020. Since then, it has already completed 12 test flights, in the sunny weather of southeastern Spain. “We are in the process of turning it into a drone,” Miller explained. “The pilot is still there for safety. But, now we have the ability to fly the aircraft fully autonomously.”

The pilot is still in charge of takeoffs and landings. But, Miller pointed out, the next step is to add systems that do it automatically. “After that, we will be able to remove the pilot from the aircraft. We are starting to build a second plane without a cabin,” he added. Removing the pilot and cockpit leaves room for larger payloads, and is a necessary step if the plane is to fly for weeks or months (Solar Impulse 2’s longest flight was just under five days).

Miller said the aircraft could be deployed as early as 2023, and that he believes there will be a market for a fleet of thousands of units. Companies like Facebook and Google have tried pseudo-satellites in the past, but without developing a commercial product.

“There will certainly be a growing demand for the type of services that Skydweller offers,” said Jeremiah Gertler, an aviation analyst at aerospace and defense market analysis firm Teal Group. “Although others offer similar and different solutions for high-altitude, long-duration missions, there is a clear advantage to being first.”

monitor the oceans

As with satellites, the project is drawing early interest for government and military work. The US Navy has invested $5 million in Skydweller to investigate the aircraft’s ability to conduct maritime patrols, currently using drones that reportedly can’t fly for more than 30 hours. Also, the Defense Innovation Unit –– a defense organization that seeks out emerging technology for the US military–– awarded Skydweller a $14 million contract. Miller, however, noted that he sees Skydweller over time “much more business-oriented than government-oriented.”

Many of the possible activities you could do have benefits for the environment, such as monitoring the use of natural resources. For example, searching for illegal ocean 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,” Miller said.

Telecommunications is likely to be one of the key uses for Skydweller, as using the aircraft to provide internet or mobile phone access could be economically viable in places where satellite or traditional infrastructure is not.


Source: Diario Ecologia by diarioecologia.com.

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