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The US Navy has a solar-powered stealth electric plane up its sleeve

The US Navy has a solar-powered stealth electric plane up its sleeve

Everyone is interested in silent and stealthy electric aircraft for military use, and solar power could gild the operational lily. The US Navy is about to find out just how quiet and stealthy it can be, with the launch of a $14 million contract with Skydweller Aero Inc., for something called “Extreme-Endurance Solar Aircraft Systems.” “.

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More solar power for the US Navy

The idea of ​​a plane that can fly on solar energy is not new, but it seems that Skydweller USA, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Skydweller Aero Inc.goes to the next level.

The $14 million contract was issued through the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit with support from the Navy. The idea is to augment Skydweller’s technology for use in Navy operations around the world.

“The primary focus of the project is the development and integration of key hardware and software that leverages clean technologies to increase efficiency and performance,” says Skydweller.

Specifically, the contract will be for the integration of a fuel cell into Skydweller’s solar energy technology. The system is complemented by a lightweight hydrogen storage system – the main challenge being lightness – as well as advanced battery technology and advanced mission management software, which is important as the aircraft is unmanned.

If all goes as planned, the end result will be a “new class of unmanned aircraft, offering the persistence of geosynchronous satellites with the powerful sensing capabilities and range of a large airborne platform”, meaning that can carry a much heavier payload than the typical drone.

“With a flexible payload system, including: communication relay, 4G/5G cellular, day/night full motion video, satellite communication, imaging radar, etc., Skydweller will enhance commercial and government efforts in telecommunications, geospatial , meteorological and emergency operation around the world,” the company explains.

Solar Power for Perpetual Flight

Fuel cell aircraft aren’t new either, so the interesting part is where solar power fits into the picture. Charging the wings with solar panels seems to be part of the plan, based on Skydweller’s previous iteration as a manned aircraft.

The Navy’s new plane could presumably fly in perpetuity, recharging its batteries during the day and using the fuel cell when needed.

If you think they could replace spent hydrogen with an on-board electrolysis system, well, maybe. The U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies have studied the feasibility of an “infinite” fuel cell which regenerates its own hydrogen.

It may sound somewhat delusional, but electrolysis works by deploying a catalyst to push hydrogen out of water. Fuel cells reverse the process by deploying a catalyst to combine oxygen with hydrogen, which produces water.

What is the Defense Innovation Unit?

If you have any thoughts on this, drop us a note in the comment thread.

In the meantime, let’s look the Defense Innovation Unitwhat’s new on the Clean Technica radar.

IUD is not the same as DARPA, the Advanced Defense Projects Research Agency. DARPA supports early stage research that capricious private sector dollars will not support. DIU is focused on commercial technology that could be applied to national security sooner rather than later.

“We are a rapidly evolving Department of Defense organization that contracts with commercial companies to address national security issues,” they explain. “DIU is the only Department of Defense organization focused exclusively on fielding and scaling commercial technology into the U.S. military to help solve critical problems.

IUD Hearts Solar Energy

DIU covers many technological fields, including AI, autonomy, cyber, human systems and space. The newly formed Advanced Energy and Materials team will help it get started in the field of renewable energy.

To help get it off to a good start, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory loaned one of its researchers, Josh Gesick, to the AEM team last year. The initial one-year period could be extended up to five years.

“With DIU-AE&M, Gesick works to understand energy issues the Ministry of Defense is trying to solvethen explores commercial ventures, works with venture capitalists, digs deeper into startup technologies, and recommends a path forward to connect DOD to these commercial organizations,” NREL explained.

“DIU offices are strategically located in well-known innovation hubs: Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, and Washington, DC. It is the only DOD organization that focuses exclusively on commissioning and the scale of commercial technology in the U.S. military at commercial speeds,” NREL enthused, noting that the lead time from identifying the problem to awarding a prototype contract is set at a target of only 60 to 90 days, which is a mile longer than the typical Department of Defense lead time.

“We’re at this tipping point,” Gleick said. “There’s the incentive and these new administrative goals to transform the future of materials, and NREL has that experience and will be an important part of that going forward.”

Renewable Energy for National Security

Fossil fuel players and their allies in government have a lot to answer for these days. The climate impacts of fossil fuel dependence are already in effect, in the form of more extreme temperatures, drought, floods, fires and storms, in addition to local pollution of soil, water and air caused by decades of spills, accidents and legal issues. landfills.

The deadly consequences of fossil fuel addiction are also on full display now that Russia has leveraged its position in the global fossil economy, highlighted by its control over Europe’s natural gas supply, to launch a brutal and unprovoked assault across Ukraine, displacing millions of people in a period of several weeks that evokes all the atrocities of World War IIup to and including genocide.

The United States Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world, and it is also acutely aware of geopolitical, national security and existential impacts of climate change. This covers environmental threats to facilities and operations, including a reduction of training exercises due to increased storms and other conditions. The humanitarian and security consequences of climate-induced mass displacement are also at stake.

The U.S. military has set itself a net-zero goal, and the U.S. Air Force recently advocated for a negative carbon goal throughout the Ministry of Defence. These are just the latest indications that US military professionals are more than ready to cut ties to fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The question now is one of speed, and as long as the fossil fuel players control the votes in Congress, the task will continue to be difficult, with some bright spots here and there in the form of innovative projects like the plane Skydweller.

follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar power for an unmanned aircraft, courtesy of Aero Skydweller.


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