how the skydweller project ended up in the middle of la mancha

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During the first half of the last decade we saw the advances of Solar Impulse, a solar plane that just wanted to prove itself capable of achieve long flights without emissions or consumption of fossil fuels. He had no commercial vocation. She achieved his goal. Some time later, a group of technologists who shared a professional network wanted to give continuity to this project, but this time orienting it to turn it, now, into a business tomorrow. Something to be able to sell to make the development of this type of unusual aircraft profitable.

Skydweller was born from that project, and from raising funds to be able to purchase the plane that flew from Hawaii to California solely with solar energy, the project created to monetize that achievement. And so began the race to take this plane beyond known limits and allow it to spend months in the sky, without having to land for all this time.

This startup that ended up choosing Albacete as the base of its operations. It may sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense. And although it is not yet in a commercial phase, it has been achieving certain clients and small achievements that they hope to crystallize definitively before reaching the halfway point of this decade.

Made in La Mancha

“The Solar Impulse project was Swiss. We could have taken the project to the United States, but for regulatory reasons it is easier to take such a project from Europe to the United States than from the United States to Europe. So if in the future we wanted to give the jump, it was convenient for us to do it that way, and then we were looking for a place with some aeronautical engineering, with moderate costs, a very sunny climate and low humidity. We chose Spain. Then we spoke with some autonomous communities to see what kind of aid we could access. European funds help R&D. In the end we chose Castilla-La Mancha, and she chose us, they saw that we could become an emblematic project for the region”, explains Sebastien Renoard, director of operations and business development at Skydweller.

Hangar

The Skydweller plane in the hangar of the Albacete airport.

Once the location was chosen, the hiring began. Today there are 120 employees among those who work at the Albacete airport, next to the Los Llanos air base, and the company’s facilities in Madrid. Half Spanish. The other half, divided among nineteen nationalities.

Very close to that airport is also the Albacete Aeronautical and Logistics Park, a hotbed of talent like the one Sebastien referred to when searching for a place on which to build his “church”.

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The location is also strategic because it has an agreement with the adjacent military base that allows them to fly using some of its infrastructurealthough it is provisional: another recent agreement with the municipality of Valdepeñas (160 kilometers from Albacete airport and somewhat closer to Madrid) will allow them to use their aerodrome for fifteen years. The renovations will start soon. Red wine, manoletes and solar planes.

The basic dynamics of this plane is a takeoff in a few hundred meters, since due to its lightness it does not cost too much to rise as soon as there is some wind. It rises slowly and rises to about 13,000 meters high, where it is recharged with solar energy. When the radiation decreases, low planning between five and ten hours with a low consumption of the accumulated energy, up to about 4,000 meters high. And so the cycle repeats.

The weight of an Audi Q8 in the wingspan of a Boeing 747

To get an idea of ​​how extremely light the Skydweller plane is, a simple comparison: it has a wingspan (72 meters) similar to that of a Boeing 747 (64 meters), but weighs 73 times less. 2.5 tons (the same as an Audi Q8, to say a model) compared to the 183.5 tons of the 747. It is not a fair or necessary comparison because these are commercial aircraft, prepared to carry hundreds of passengers; in front of a plane that, because it does not carry, does not carry a pilot or fuel. But it helps to understand the obsession to make it extremely light.

Wingspan And Weight 001

“Lightness is crucial for us. A hundred grams, even ten, that we can reduce, we do, are important. It is made entirely of composite materials: carbon fiber, solar panels, batteries… What weighs the most are the batteries and motors,” says the company spokesperson.

Positions to reduce load, it barely has landing gear. “Normal planes land every few hours, after every trip. Ours can go days, weeks, even months without landing, because it’s autonomous and doesn’t need to refuel. So we decided to remove what was dead weight for us. We use electric scooters that manually do the usual function of the landing gear to support the wings.The plane barely has a small wheel under the cockpit and another wheel to support the tail, it’s like a glider”. Something that explains the peculiar image of the mopeds guarding the Skydweller plane in each takeoff and landing.

Takeoff

Electric scooters under the wings of the Skydweller plane.

The absence of a pilot not only reduces the 70 or 80 kilos that an average human weighs, but much more. “We saw that if this plane can fly for months, the only limitation was the pilot, who cannot spend weeks or months on a plane. Solar Impulse’s record was 5 days and 4 nights, and it was already an adventure… The pilot slept in twenty-minute stretches, he could barely get up, he was alone, he ate badly, he was cold… By removing the pilot, we also made a basic equation: if neither he nor all their needs (seat, oxygen, systems…) we saved 600 kilos. But we had to add navigation systems, autonomous control, actuators… All of that weighs 200 kilos. In the end there are 400 kilos of payload, payload. That’s a lot in this industry: 400 kilos to be able to fly permanently in the sky, without having to be a satellite hundreds of kilometers from Earth. That doesn’t exist, it’s something unique,” explains Sebastien.

a business model

This project has a commercial vocation, but in no case for private clients. skydweller beholds two main types of customers: governments and public administrations, and telecommunications companies.

“The number of applications is huge,” says the director. “We can help in many areas by being a permanent eye in the sky. Like a satellite, but much closer to Earth. For example, monitoring forest fires, or the fauna of a specific region, the sea, natural disasters … When the La Palma volcano erupted, for example, if we could have been flying, we would have been able to provide permanent aerial images, at all times, instead of drones making trips of at most one or two hours. unbeatable price, because there is no pilot and we do not pay refueling, the Sun does not ask us for money. And since we do not have to be landing, it is another cost that we save “.

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It also mentions other types of areas of action, such as border control. “To control illegal fishing, clandestine immigration, drug trafficking… These are things that a satellite, an airplane or a drone can do, but we will be able to do it permanently, hardly moving in the sky, without shadow areas like a satellite, without having to go down every so often to refuel or recharge.“And in the case of aerial images, the higher the resolution due to the greater proximity. In the case of telecommunications companies, they consider that the 400 kilos of load can be used to carry antennas that bring connectivity to rural areas that lack it.

Each device, whose cost the company estimates in “millions of euros” without specifying more, has an estimated useful life of about twenty insured years, although Skydweller still thinks it’s too early to give too precise a forecast. “Being made of carbon fiber, we do know that its durability will be greater than that of metal planes. What suffers the most wear and tear are the batteries and motors, and they can be replaced.”

Although they do not want to give precise figures either, by 2025 they hope to reach the “double digit” in terms of operational aircraft units. That is, more than nine and less than one hundred. In the long term and as a projection of the potential market, they estimate that there could be “thousands of planes” all over the planet. “Less than 10,000, but not 100 or 200, but thousands,” concludes the director.

During the first half of the last decade we saw the advances of Solar Impulse, a solar plane that just…

During the first half of the last decade we saw the advances of Solar Impulse, a solar plane that just…

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