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Skydweller UAV conducting autonomous flights in advance of experimental operations

Skydweller UAV seen taking off for a flight trial. (Skydweller Aero)

The Skydweller unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is conducting autonomous envelope expansion flights from Albacete, Spain, in anticipation of experimental operations on behalf of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Skydweller Aero CEO Robert Miller told Janes on 19 April. The aircraft has performed nine test flights so far.

On its most recent flight, on 19 March, Skydweller flew for four hours and reached an 18,000 ft altitude. Although a pilot was aboard for safety reasons, the aircraft flew autonomously from start to finish, said Miller.

The eventual goal is an aircraft capable of reaching 45,000 ft altitude and staying aloft for months at a time. “Several more” are planned for June after modifications to the aircraft's landing gear and airbrake, Miller said, although he declined to reveal a schedule for full envelope expansion.

The lone Skydweller aircraft is a modification of Solar Impulse, the UAV that circled the globe powered only by solar cells and batteries. Two additional aircraft are under construction at partner Leonardo's factory in Italy. Receipt of those aircraft is uncertain, pending the results of materials testing – the company is replacing the fuselage composites, solar cells, and batteries with more capable versions, “and we have to do some coupon testing before we go to full production on that”, Miller told Janes .

“The main thing in the next aircraft will be a new fuselage because we won't read the pilot anymore. We're working with several different battery manufacturers to upgrade the energy density of the battery. And also, we're looking at the solar cells that are, I would say, a generation or two old,” said Miller.

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