Solar-powered drone made by Oklahoma aerospace company takes flight

Imagine an aircraft that can remain in the sky for months without having to land and refuel.

That’s the dream envisioned by Robert Miller, CEO of Skydweller Aero, an Oklahoma-based company developing an autonomous airplane powered by the sun. It’s an ambitious and potentially lucrative idea that could be used for weather monitoring, surveillance or even communication networks.

For the company’s successful first test flight last week in Spain, Skydweller Aero used the Solar Impulse 2, an aircraft already notable for its around-the-world flight using only solar power.

Before they can run with an autonomous drone, they must first walk with a test pilot on board. It’s like testing a self-driving car for the first time, Miller said.

The repurposed Solar Impulse 2 aircraft is being used by Skydweller Aero to test solar-powered autonomous flight. The Oklahoma City-based company recently conducted its first flight test in Spain.

How is autonomous software tested?

“We’re kind of doing the same thing except for an aircraft. In this case, it’s fly straight and level, speed up, speed down and turn left, turn right, circle, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “We’re on track by this fall to have a fully autonomous aircraft.”

Some of the software is being developed in Oklahoma by a small team of engineers. By 2024, the company plans to employ 120 engineers and technicians in the state. Skydweller Aero’s Oklahoma contingent also works on structural design and systems engineering.