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solar energy aircraft Skydweller hydrogen fuel cell
The US Navy is eyeballing solar energy, energy storage and a hydrogen fuel cell for infinite flight (photo courtesy of Skydweller Aero, Inc.).


US Navy Has A $14 Million Stealthy Solar Energy Electric Aircraft Up Its Sleeve

The US Navy is eyeballing solar energy and a hydrogen fuel cell for infinite flight.

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

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More Solar Energy For The US Navy

The idea of an aircraft that can fly on solar energy is not new, but it looks like Skydweller USA, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Skydweller Aero Inc., is taking it 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 bump up Skydweller’s technology for use in Navy operations around the world.

“The project’s primary objective is the development and integration of key hardware and software that leverage clean technology to increase efficiency and performance,” Skydweller explains.

Specifically, the contract will focus on integrating a fuel cell into Skydweller’s solar energy technology. Topping off the system is a lightweight hydrogen storage system — the key challenge being lightweight — along with advanced battery technology, and advanced mission management software, which is important because the aircraft is un-personed.

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

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

Solar Energy For Perpetual Flight

Fuel cell aircraft are also not a new thing, so the interesting part is where the solar energy fits into the picture. Loading up the wings with solar panels seems to be part of the plan, based on Skydweller’s previous iteration as a piloted aircraft.

The Navy’s new aircraft could conceivably fly in perpetuity, recharging its batteries by day and using the fuel cell when needed.

If you’re thinking they could replace the spent hydrogen with an on-board electrolysis system, well, maybe. The US Department of Energy and other agencies have been studying the feasibility of an “infinity” fuel cell that regenerates its own hydrogen.

That may seem somewhat pie in the sky, 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 about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the Defense Innovation Unit, which is new on the CleanTechnica radar.

DIU is not the same as DARPA, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. DARPA gets behind early stage research that skittish private sector dollars won’t support. DIU focuses on commercial-ready technology that could be applied to national security sooner rather than later.

“We’re a fast-moving Department of Defense organization that contracts with commercial companies to solve national security problems,” they explain. “DIU is the only Department of Defense organization focused exclusively on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the U.S. military to help solve critical problems.

DIU Hearts Solar Energy

DIU covers a lot of technology ground, including AI, autonomy, cyber, human systems, and space. The recently formed Advanced Energy and Materials team will help kickstart it into the renewable energy area.

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

“With DIU–AE&M, Gesick works to understand the energy problems the Department of Defense is trying to solve, then explores commercial ventures, works with venture capitalists, digs deep into startup technologies, and recommends a path forward to connect DOD with these commercial organizations,” NREL explained.

“DIU’s offices are strategically located in known innovation hubs: Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, and Washington, D.C. It is the only DOD organization focused exclusively on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the U.S. military at commercial speeds,” NREL enthused, noting that the timeline between identifying the problem and awarding a prototype contract is set at a goal of just 60–90 days, which beats a typical Defense Department timeline by a mile.

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

Renewable Energy For National Security

Fossil energy stakeholders and their allies in government have a lot to answer for these days. The climate impacts of fossil fuel dependency are already in effect, in the form of more extreme temperatures, drought, floods, fire, and storms, on top of local ground, water, and air pollution wrought by decades of spills, accidents, and legal discharges.

The lethal consequences of fossil energy dependency are also on full display now that Russia has leveraged its position in the global fossil economy, highlighted by its control over Europe’s supply of natural gas, to go on an unprovoked, brutal assault across Ukraine, displacing millions in a weeks-long span that evokes all the atrocities of World War II, up to and including genocide.

The US Department of Defense is one of the largest single fossil energy consumers in the world, and it is also keenly aware of the geopolitical, national security, and existential impacts of climate change. That covers environment-based threats to facilities and operations, including a cutback in training exercises due to increased storms and other conditions. The humanitarian and security consequences of climate-induced, mass relocation are also in play.

The US Army has set a net zero goal, and the US Air Force recently advocated for a carbon-negative goal across the entire Department of Defense. Those are just the latest indications that US military professionals are more than ready to cut ties with fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

The question now is one of speed, and as long as fossil energy stakeholders control votes in Congress, the going will continue to be a tough slog, with a few brights spots here and there in the form of innovative projects like the Skydweller aircraft.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar energy for an un-personed aircraft, courtesy of Skydweller Aero.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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