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.
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.
In a news conference with Gov. Kevin Stitt last year, Miller announced he would establish his headquarters in Ardmore. There’s a possibility that some flight tests could occur in the United States, he said.
“The eventual goal is that, for our U.S. government customers, we will be doing at least final assembly, some manufacturing, in Ardmore and doing the modifications of the aircraft for the U.S. government in Ardmore,” he said.
That will require some test flights there, Miller added.
Clay Pearce, director of structural engineering and manufacturing, said these early flight tests involve significant contributions from the human on board. That will change over the next few months, though, as humans on the ground build autonomous software.
“The pilot is going to have a smaller and smaller role of actually flying the aircraft and become more just monitoring, if you will, until the aircraft is able to take off, do fairly complex maneuvers and land all on its own,” Pearce said.
Need for aerospace engineers in Oklahoma
Skydweller Aero is one of several burgeoning aerospace companies looking for aerospace engineers. The industry has enough potential in Oklahoma that a trio of colleges are offering a program to help engineers who don’t have an aerospace background bridge the gap into a new career.
As part of the new Aerospace and Cybersecurity Center of Workforce Excellence, Rose State College, Tulsa Community College and Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology will offer non-credit certification courses later this spring.
“The Aerospace and Cybersecurity Center of Workforce Excellence is meant to be a collaborative effort between educators and industry partners to advance this vital sector of the Oklahoma economy, and we are well-positioned to make an immediate impact as we launch our efforts,” said Rose State Vice President of External Affairs Tamara Pratt.
Much like how Oklahoma oil and gas industry manufacturers are seeking new customers in aerospace and aviation, engineers with experience in the oil field could make the same transition.
“I think engineering basics are the same,” Pearce said. “In any field, there’s difficulty in transitional fields and in aerospace, there are definitely some nuances that would make it more difficult. That also depends, as always, on the mentoring and training.”
Miller said despite a proactive congressional delegation and state leadership pushing the aerospace industry, there’s still work that needs to be done. Most of Oklahoma’s aerospace output in recent years has been on maintenance, repair and overhaul. Both the commercial and defense sectors have a large MRO presence here with Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City and the American Airlines Base Maintenance Center in Tulsa.
“What we need to build is more of the higher-tech development, cutting edge technology in aviation and space,” Miller said. “Do we need more? Absolutely. Are we heading in the right direction? I believe the current leadership is doing an excellent job of transitioning Oklahoma into where we can move the economic engine of aerospace and defense.”
Staff writer Dale Denwalt covers technology, aerospace and Oklahoma business news for The Oklahoman. Are you switching careers to join Oklahoma’s aerospace boom? Reach out to Dale at [email protected] or on Twitter at @denwalt. Support Dale’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.