Italian defence and aerospace group Leonardo invested in a company developing solar-powered drones potentially capable of unlimited flight with no refuelling.
The drone, expected to begin autonomous flights next year and go into production in 2021, can operate from existing airbases around the world and remain airborne for much longer than current aircraft.
Leonardo gave no financial details saying it would become lead investor in and main industrial partner to Skydweller Aero and would lead marketing of the drone in Italy, the United Kingdom and Poland.
Chief executive Alessandro Profumo said the deal would “improve the company’s competitive advantage in the aerospace business for the next 20 years”.
Leonardo said the system would comply with European export laws and would not be subject to international arms trafficking restrictions.
Development and construction of the aircraft will be carried out at the Skydweller facility in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region. Its aircraft division will help development and engineering via a dedicated team.
Groups including Airbus, Facebook and Google have looked at solar-powered aircraft.
Development has been hampered by issues such as installing solar panels that generate sufficient power for flight without adding excessive weight.
Leonardo said Skydweller developed a “proven and mature” aircraft that successfully circumnavigated the globe in 2016.
The first development phase would focus on converting the aircraft to an “optionally piloted vehicle” by building in autonomy algorithms.
A second phase would develop a fully autonomous unpiloted aircraft, capable of enduring a range of environmental conditions.
Drones capable of flying as long as the sun shone could have widespread applications ranging from military to communications, navigation, climate and environmental as well as infrastructure monitoring.