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The U.S. Navy is developing an uncrewed, solar-powered aircraft known as Skydweller that is designed to remain airborne for 90 days at a stretch. The aircraft will provide the capability to persistently watch wide expanses of oceans as never before.
The solar drone will be equipped with advanced analytics from Palantir Technologies to rapidly process the vast amounts of data it collects literally on the fly.
Developed by U.S.-Spanish company Skydweller Aero, the new drone is based on the crewed Solar Impulse 2 aircraft, which flew around the world in stages in 2016. The current Skydweller prototype is the Solar Impulse 2 airframe, which has been modified for uncrewed operation.
The crucial difference between the current model and the original Solar Impulse 2 is, of course, that it is uncrewed. That removes the limitations that come with having a human who can only stay airborne for a few days at a time in a cramped capsule. It also frees up a lot of capacity.
The Navy is developing Skydweller under its Autonomous Maritime Patrol Aircraft program. This will carry sensors, communications and electronic warfare equipment on missions lasting for up to 90 days.
“This technological leap will allow a single Skydweller aircraft to more effectively perform the mission of numerous manned & unmanned ISR [intelligence. Surveillance and reconnaissance] /configurable assets, eliminate risk to human pilots, and provide a level of persistence not available anywhere else in the military inventory, or the world,” according to a recent budget document.
Skydweller will carry day and night imaging cameras, plus imaging radar and other sensors. The Foundry software will help make sense of the data, not just by helping identify objects.
For example, the companies say that rather than relaying video back to operators so they can try to figure out if a black rectangle showing against the water is a ship, it can fuse the data from multiple sensors to confirm and provide details that cannot be picked out by radar or video alone.
The current U.S. Navy contract covers the development and demonstration of the aircraft’s abilities to carry out extended missions and operate autonomously, according to forbes.com.