Leonardo has announced it has invested in US/Spanish start-up company Skydweller Aero, to develop a new generation of large solar-powered unmanned aerial systems (UAS), capable of perpetual flight and carrying heavy payloads.
The Italian-based company made the announcement on November 11, adding that the investment will result in the development and deployment of the Skydweller UAS. The company boasts that the platform will become the world's first fully-electric unmanned aircraft with unlimited range and ultra-persistent endurance, capable of carrying large payloads.
Aimed at military customers, the UAS is said to combine the range and flexibility of a mature, proven aircraft with potentially unlimited persistence, meaning it can deploy to operational theatres thousands of miles away and loiter in the region longer than current aircraft. The Skydweller UAS is being pitched as a land/maritime surveillance, telecommunications and environment/infrastructure monitoring aircraft. Alongside this, the UAS will have the ability to be rapidly deployed during emergencies and disaster-recovery operations, providing backup communications and direct support to first responders.
Leonardo adds that the UAS will "fill key gaps in many countries' integrated surveillance architecture. It enables improved situational awareness for military forces and more cost-effective utilisation of resources than with traditional systems."
The Skydweller platform is based on an aircraft which successfully circumnavigated the globe in 2016. Going forward, the project is split into two phases. The first will see the manned aircraft converted into an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) by integrating advanced autonomy algorithms and vehicle management systems onto the platform. The second phase will culminate in the first production aircraft, solely designed for unmanned operations.
These two phases are scheduled to be completed quickly, with the OPV's first autonomous flights planned for 2020 and the first production model of the UAS projected to be rolled out in 2021. Development and engineering of the platform will take place at Skydweller Aero's facility in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain - with Leonardo acting as a prime contractor for commercial opportunities in Italy, NATO, Poland and the UK.
Alessandro Produmo, CEO of Leonardo, said: "As the key technological investor and partner of the project, Leonardo will broaden its capabilities in new power systems, autonomous flight, innovative aerostructures, ultra-light materials and eco-friendly technologies to improve the company's competitive advantage in the aerospace business for the next 20 years."