The aerospace revolution is solar-powered
Interview: Robert Miller, CEO and co-founder Skydweller Aero

by The Society Magazine - Decrypting Tomorrow#4
Gaia Giorgio Fedi
February 9, 2022

Skydweller Aero developed a new class of unmanned aircraft. With the aim of bringing perpetual flight to the world, leveraging a disruptive technology that could be soon be brought to the market, says CEO and co-founder Robert Miller

Bringing perpetual flight to the world, utilising a technology based upon the longest continuous solar powered flight program in history, with the aim of revolutionising the telecommunications industry: this is the mission of Skydweller Aero, a U.S.-Spanish company founded in 2017, which developed a new class of solar-powered unmanned aircraft. The company is confident this technology can be brought to the market very soon, says CEO and co-founder Robert Miller, a Stanford graduate in Mechanical & Aerospace with a PhD in Aerospace engineering, and decades of experience at the heart of the air defence community.

How did you and John Parkes decide to found Skydweller? 

With decades of combined experience in aerospace and defence, John and I witnessed firsthand the growing need for a truly persistent commercial aircraft — one that could fly unmanned for 90 days, and potentially significantly longer depending on latitude and season. We followed the Solar Impulse project closely, and after the momentous 2016 flight, determined this aircraft was both robust and light enough to transform the government surveillance and telecommunications by providing a cost-effective, sustainable way to remain on station for months at a time, using the most advanced payloads to connect people around the world and better utilise data, making the world a safer, more connected place.

After founding Skydweller in 2017, we acquired the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft and related IP assets in 2019, and then began recruiting top engineering talent around the world to make this a reality. In under two years, we have made significant progress. Employing around 120 employees, we are well on our way to transforming this manned aircraft into an unmanned platform. We are rapidly developing and testing advanced hardware components, and, most importantly, our autonomous systems through regular flight testing. We are confident that Skydweller will demonstrate autonomous, long-endurance flight in the near term, bringing this critical technology to market.

Your company is contributing to change the future of telecommunication. What is going on in this sector and what could we expect in the future?

In the modern era, telecommunication is intrinsically linked to the advancement and improvement of our society. From economic development and political stability to healthcare and education, Internet connectivity is equivalent to the water trade routes of the past. If you’re landlocked – or today, if you lack internet – you are at a significant disadvantage.

In mobile, 43% of the world (or 3.4 billion people) remain disconnected, mainly because of affordability issues, further exacerbated by the economic impact of Covid-19. A staggering 450 million people are disconnected due to the coverage gap. Fixed broadband penetration also poses a huge challenge in Africa and Latin America, where penetration as a percentage of the population is low, but also in remote areas in developed markets such as the US and Australia.

While we are making good progress in closing the usage and coverage gap with existing ground infrastructure, a combination of non-terrestrial network [NTN] solutions can complement existing solutions and accelerate the bridging of the digital divide at better financial terms and returns for all stakeholders. Such NTNs play an obvious, meaningful role in providing coverage in underserved and rural areas but can also be critical in providing extra capacity and connectivity when and where needed and in disasters.

Skydweller is a medium altitude solar powered platform, or, if you can imagine, a communications ‘Tower in the Sky’, with over 1,250 flight hours with a perfect safety record. It will be capable of perpetual flight around the equatorial regions. When technology becomes available, and we think it will be soon, the use cases for Skydweller in the telecommunications range from providing broadband connectivity to households to connecting the disconnected mobile handsets – and even cars and trains – at significantly better cost economics than existing solutions.  We believe this will transform the industry and materially bridge the usage and coverage gap in regions of the world.

The technologies behind drones are constantly improving. What will be the role in our lives in the future and which sectors will be most impacted, in your view?

Large-scale drones have been a military asset for many years now, providing countries with the necessary intelligence to keep their citizens safe. These platforms will make their foray into the civilian population, revolutionising high-bandwidth telecommunications, either by providing internet in remote areas around the world that never had access, strengthening bandwidth on cruises in the middle of the ocean, or adding necessary support in a densely populated area where connections can often be fickle. We see this having a great impact on the telecommunications industry, tower firms and related infrastructure, and the real estate market, as people will think more globally, perhaps choosing to live somewhere more remote, as they build confidence that they will be connected, regardless of where life takes them.

Skydweller has developed a solar-powered aircraft. As the world commits to reducing CO2 emissions, will we see a shift towards eco-friendly aircraft? Is this a feasible alternative also for passenger transport? 

I believe, where they can, the aviation industry will make a dramatic shift towards the development of eco-friendly aircraft. We have seen some very aggressive pledges being made towards decreasing country-specific and global greenhouse gas emissions. What is most encouraging to me are the many serious discussions at academic and industry conferences on electric propulsion, advanced, more sustainable battery technology, advanced solar technology, and the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power the next generation of aircraft and UAS (unmanned aerial systems). When it comes to the passenger transportation sector – specifically commercial airlines – it is much more complicated. We believe, through the development of autonomous systems, there is a potential for these technologies to be applied to the commercial airline, but Skydweller is partnering with universities in both the U.S. and Spain to develop advanced sustainable technologies, which have the potential to make a direct and strong impact on the aviation industry. We believe we have a responsibility to not only advance our own sustainable aircraft, but also contribute to the broader industry’s efforts to help fight climate change.

How do you think the developments in the aerospace industry might be beneficial for global growth and progress?

I believe we’re seeing increased attention to the aerospace industry based on a renewed interest in space exploration on a global scale. By having public-private partnerships in the US, i.e., SpaceX/NASA, we’re seeing accelerated timelines and truly incredible achievements for mankind. Some don’t realize that investment in this sector has the potential to make critical breakthroughs outside the space and aerospace industry – in areas such as bio-health field and environmental science, and the opportunity to open new and exciting scientific and technical markets and the potential to unify countries around a single mission. Although we are not in the space sector per se, we believe the renewed passion will be excellent for our society and help shape the aviation and autonomous systems industry, both directly and indirectly.

Which is the degree of interest from Venture Capital in drones and autonomous aircrafts? Have you seen a rising attentiveness on this sector? 

There has been a significant rise in the degree of interest from Venture Capital in drones and autonomous aircraft. This has been a trend for over a decade and has grown, despite the global pandemic. While the rise of D-SPACs and IPOs in this industry has been noteworthy. I think many confused technology startups with business model innovation. Most startups today are, in fact, business model innovators. We are one of very few that are pushing the technology forward, both in the pursuit of corporate goals and the advancement of science to fuel the future of aerospace, autonomous systems, and clean technology. We believe we are well-positioned to grow, developing technology that is greatly needed across multiple markets, and we are pleased that investors like Milano Investment Partners have taken notice and decided to join us as we make aviation history!

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