US Navy spends millions to develop a solar-powered UAV

Most branches of the United States military operate drones in one capacity or another. Some drones are used for short-term surveillance while others loiter over a target site for extended durations keeping an eye on the ground from above. The United States Navy is looking for an uncrewed air vehicle with a much longer duration than what's currently possible.

To achieve its desired long-range, the Navy has awarded a company called Skydweller $5 million to construct a long-endurance UAV powered by solar energy. So far, Skydweller Aero has offered no comment on the objectives for demonstrator aircraft but has confirmed it's working with the Navy to develop key performance parameters.

Skydweller says that its aircraft could stay aloft for between 30 and 90 days. How long it can maintain flight will depend on the latitude of the mission, which determines the intensity of sunlight and how much power can be generated by the solar panels on top of its wings. The aircraft currently lacks an official name, but it first flew in December 2020. Since that date, Skydweller has conducted multiple test flights moving towards full autonomous flight.

The aircraft would be able to operate at altitudes between 30,000 and 45,000 feet. It can carry a payload of up to 800 pounds and has a massive 236-foot wingspan. The aircraft weighs in at 2495 kilograms. The platform will support various mission types from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to communications relay and can provide support during a natural disaster.

The long-duration aircraft could also be used for environmental monitoring and geospatial mapping. One of the key usage scenarios would likely be intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for the military. Long-duration aircraft operating at relatively high altitudes would be well suited to that task. Currently, the MQ-9A Reaper is used for that mission, and it can only remain on target for 27 hours.