US navy developing solar powered plane that can fly for 90 days

The aircraft could be used as a communications platform

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 04 August 2021 20:38 BST
Solar plane breaks record

The US navy is developing a solar aircraft which can reportedly remain in the sky for up to 90 days to serve as a surveillance tool and potentially as a communications platform.

New Scientist reported that the US-Spanish aerospace firm Skydweller Aero was given a $5m contract to develop the plane.

The aircraft will be built on an upgraded piece of solar powered hardware called Solar Impulse 2.

An early version of the aircraft completed a global flight in 2015, but had to make stops to do so due to the human pilot's need to rest.

The navy's version of the plane would eliminate the pilot, allowing for more hardware to be installed and increasing its potential uninterrupted time in the air to 90 days.

"When we remove the cockpit, we are enabling true persistence and providing the opportunity to install up to about 400kg of payload capacity," Robert Miller, the CEO of Skydweller, told the publication.

He said that the company was currently testing the vehicle's autonomous flight and take-off capabilities.

"Once all of this has been proven, we will move into long-endurance testing with the goal of operating for 90-plus days," he said.

While other solar-powered planes exist, the new naval aircraft will be significantly heavier and larger than currently existing craft.

The plane will have 72m wings, which will be covered in solar cells, and will be outfitted with hydrogen field cells for additional power boosts.

Right now, the US navy uses MQ-4C Triton drones to monitor ships that are out on patrols. Those drones can only stay in the air for 30 hours at a time, and the navy is eager to put a craft into the air that can sustain longer flight.

In addition to monitoring duties, the plane could also be outfitted with communications equipment for use as a comms platform.

The company began construction on the new aircraft after its prototype version completed a successful flight.

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