The autonomous plane on which Luxembourg hovers

The “City of Petange” cuts clouds from the sad sky at the end of November 2016. The runway of the small airport in Dubendorf, near Zurich, is four times shorter than that of Findel, but the Cargolux 747-400 piloted by Axel Herbst landed safely at 2:44 pm, loaded with the Solar Impulse 2 plane in spare parts, returning from Dubai after its round-the-world trip made possible by its covered wing with 17,249 photovoltaic cells.

Bertrand Piccard and his accomplice and co-pilot André Borschberg are in a strange situation: it’s the end of a 15-year era that mobilized 150 engineers and swallowed up 190 million dollars in development… this revolutionary plane to Dubai. What to do with it? On the Swiss track that day, they are content to wait for these 72-meter wings to end up in a museum in Switzerland, to forever testify to Swiss know-how.

Three years later, no press conference. A simple press release announces that the intellectual property and the plane were sold to a Spanish start-up, Skydweller, for a pittance. Inevitably for a pittance, it still raised “only” 4 million euros at the time of this announcement. “We can’t talk about that value,” replied Skydweller’s director of business development and communications, Michael Miller, interviewed by Paperjam this week.

Luxembourg transfers Skydweller plane to Caribbean

And three more years later, François Bausch announced an agreement with the start-up, transferred to the United States, and Leonardo, its main shareholder. “This new agreement will initially see the Luxembourg Defense Directorate assist in transporting the Skydweller aircraft from Albacete, Spain to the Caribbean for its long-term flight test and demonstration activities – in support of Skydweller Aero’s contract with the Department of U.S. Defense (DoD) to demonstrate zero-emissions, long-duration flight for defense applications.”

Before seeing how Luxembourg can join the project with Leonardo’s ISR sensors and associated resources focused on the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) mission sets, the minister’s press release reads.

Because Bertrand Piccard’s plane became one of the flagship projects of American Defense. An almost unique case of civilian technology turned into military technology. At stake, say military experts, is the 2031 replacement of the US armies’ current unmanned drone, the MQ1 Predator for the unarmed version and the MQ9 Predator for the armed version. At the time of the sale of “his” technology, the Solar Impulse 2 plane and the intellectual property, to the Americans, Bertrand Piccard had explained that it would be prohibited to arm him under the terms of the transfer agreement.

To what extent is the start-up linked to this agreement? Hard to say. If Tageblatt recently estimated funding at $250 million, the communications director explains that this figure includes the initial $190 million, expenses to fly Solar Impulse 2. The other millions come from a series A of $40 million. led by the Leonardo group, and which includes the 4 million dollars contributed at the end of 2021 by the investment fund of the Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo, Neva. The start-up also finalized a partnership with American data mining giant Palantir, founded by pro-Trump Peter Thiel and InQ-Tel, the CIA fund.

Skydweller has signed a first contract with the US Navy for a test flight of its solar-powered aircraft for $5 million. Most importantly, it finalized a $14 million contract with the DoD Defense Innovation Unit with support from the Navy. The contract covers the integration of a fuel cell, in addition to solar technology, even a lightweight hydrogen storage system, advanced battery technology and advanced mission management software.

Enough to make an autonomous aircraft for perpetual geosynchronous flight, which would therefore move in the direction of the Earth’s rotation without needing to return there for anything other than maintenance. This would rule out the possibility of making it an autonomous armed aircraft. The conditional is still needed because the on-board technology would theoretically make it possible to carry a much heavier load. However, just the fact that you can keep it in flight for thousands of kilometers in one area for up to 60 days is a revolution for communication, but also from the perspective of an armed aircraft.

Direction Oklahoma City, the aerospace industry mecca

Oklahoma City, where the start-up established its headquarters leaving crumbs for its Spanish website, is the best global location for aerospace and defense technologies, which create 44 billion dollars of added value per year, because more than a thousand companies are gathered in a cluster employing over 120,000 people.

Skydweller CEO Robert Miller is already a superstar in the industry: he holds a Bachelor of Science and a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University and a Ph. at Northrop Grumman, then technical director of AME Unmanned Air Systems, acquired in 2012 by the giant Lockheed Martin, and founder of Parry Labs, a consulting and management company for defense and intelligence projects focused on the integration of unmanned drones, cyber warfare and Electronic communication.

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