U.S. Navy’s Solar Drone Will Fly 90-Day Missions Seeing All With Palantir Technology
The U.S. Navy is developing an uncrewed, solar-powered aircraft known as Skydweller capable of remaining airborne for 90 days at a stretch. Today it was revealed the drone will be equipped with state-of-the-art analytics from Palantir Technologies to rapidly process the vast amounts of data it collects literally on the fly. The aircraft, being developed by U.S.-Spanish company Skydweller Aero will be provide the capability to persistently watch wide expanses of oceans as never before.
The idea of an ‘eternal aircraft’ which uses sun power by day and batteries by night has been around for more than twenty years. NASA’s giant HELIOS prototype flew to over 90,000 feet in 2001, but, like most of the subsequent solar aircraft it was comparatively fragile and broke up in flight in 2007. This fragility has been a running theme in solar aircraft development and has repeatedly led to programs being delayed or cancelled, notably Google’s Solara 50 which crashed in 2015 and Facebook’s Aquila which suffered the same fate 2016.
However, Skydweller comes from more robust and proven stock, as it 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 modified for uncrewed operation.
“Solar Impulse spent over a decade developing an airworthy design sufficient for a human pilot and flight over densely populated areas to successfully complete their mission,” Skydweller Aero CEO Dr. Robert Miller told Fintech Zoom. “We purchased the IP, processes, information, test articles, and a design legacy of over 1,250 flight hours, including a successful circumnavigation.”
Because the Solar Impulse team were working to the safety standard of manned aircraft, and because they had to deal with the weight of a human being — whereas solar aircraft like the Zephyr only carry a few pounds of payload – they had to build it far stronger.
“Skydweller aircraft is significantly more robust, flown around the world at the same middle altitudes where previous Solar Powered Aircraft have failed due to problems with aeroelasticity,” says Miller.
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.
“When we remove the cockpit, we are enabling true persistence and providing the opportunity to install up to about 400 kilograms [880 pounds] of payload capacity,” says Miller.
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.
Currently the U.S. Navy operates the giant MQ-4C Triton drone for long-range surveillance missions. This has a bigger wingspan than a 737 airliner, and a conventional turbofan engine giving an endurance of 30 hours, impressive by the standards of crewed aircraft but not compared to the 90 days that he Skydweller offers. The Triton is also extremely expensive at over $240 million each. The new solar aircraft are a fraction of the size and a fraction of the cost – but they will also be much smarter in terms of onboard brains.
Skydweller Aero announced today that they are teaming with Palantir Technologies, a publicly traded U.S. company specializing in big data analytics. Skydweller will use Palantir’s Foundry platform to handle and fuse complex data collected by its sensors.
“By using Palantir Foundry, we will be able to quickly analyze – and get the most value – out of the large amounts of data we’ll be processing,” says Miller.
Palantir technology, credited with helping find Osama bin Laden, has a formidable reputation in the defense intelligence sector. Palantir has been called ‘Silicon Valley’s most secretive unicorn’ and credited with giving the military ‘a god’s-eye view of Afghanistan.’ The company’s ability to make sense of the rising tide of big data has seen it go from strength to strength.
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, rather than relying on video back to operators so they can try to figure out if black rectangle showing against the water is a ship, it can fuse the data from multiple sensors to confirm and provide details which cannot be picked out by radar or video alone. This might, for example, not just confirm that there isa ship, but that there is high confidence the vessel is a Chinese Type 052D destroyer at a specific location moving SSE at 23 knots.
Having this type of analysis on board should provide actionable intelligence faster. It also avoids the bandwidth limitation that causes so many problems for other intelligence-gathering drones. Satellite communications can only carry so much information, and while other drones might store data for analysis when the land, anything collected is liable to be out-of-date after a three-month mission.
Pre-processing also means that the aircraft only needs to pass back a small quantity of relevant data, rather than endless high-resolution video of empty sea. A small team of operators and analysts will be able to handle a large fleet of drones.
The current U.S. Navy contract covers development and demonstration of the aircraft’s abilities to carry out extended missions and operate autonomously. If successful, we may see large numbers of solar aircraft carrying out persistent surveillance with worldwide reach – and not just over the oceans.