Calverton startup Luminati Aerospace LLC on Friday staged a demonstration flight of a half-size prototype solar-powered aircraft whose larger successors are slated to remain aloft indefinitely and beam internet service to the Third World.
At Friday’s event, Luminati test pilot Robert Lutz guided the nearly silent V0-SubStrata aircraft with a wing span of 43 feet on a roughly 13-minute flight before about 200 guests, making sweeping turns despite 20-knot gusts that threatened to scuttle the demonstration.
In an interview, Luminati chief executive Daniel Preston said that he expects to deliver the first full-size production versions of the aircraft to India in the third quarter of 2017 as part of an effort to deliver internet service to the world’s 4 billion unconnected people.
The 420-pound V0-SubStrata, with a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet, can operate with a pilot or autonomously, Preston said. It can remain aloft during daylight hours and four hours into the night, he said.
A major technology company is funding development of the aircraft, but Luminati officials have remained mum on the backer. Facebook, which has voiced support for such projects, declined a recent request for comment on the Luminati initiative.
In remarks to a gathering of Luminati employees, aviation enthusiasts, former Grumman Corp. workers and reporters and politicians, Preston said the primary mission of Luminati is to achieve “perpetual flight.”
A plane powered by solar cells and a battery alone cannot remain aloft indefinitely, but the application of several other “game-changing technologies” will enable the company to meet that goal, Preston said.
Luminati launched last year after acquiring the property of Skydive Long Island at Enterprise Park at Calverton, where Bethpage-based Grumman Corp. once developed F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. Luminati also gained access to runways where Friday’s flight took place.
Friday’s event at Luminati’s Calverton facility also showcased a gyrocopter and vintage biplanes in a nod to Long Island’s aviation history, as well as the SeaMax M-22, a conventionally powered amphibious plane. Luminati has formed a joint venture with Great Neck-based SeaMax America to manufacture the aircraft.
As Luminati, with a workforce of 25, gears up, Preston said, about 40 more employees will be added by year’s end. Luminati’s workforce includes PhDs in electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, aeronautics, chemical physics and chemical engineering. Preston himself holds more than 120 patents and pending patents.
Preston said Luminati is incorporating several leading-edge technologies into its solar-powered aircraft to enable perpetual flight.
The advances include thin-ply composites to save weight and wind-energy harvesting, in which the aircraft uses strong winds to climb to higher altitudes, gradually descending in a “porpoising profile” when the wind ebbs, according to Preston.
Another technology would adopt the formation flying patterns of birds, to give multiple aircraft a reduction in drag. The aircraft wings also will have pinholes that suck in and puff out air to optimize airflow, mimicking an adaptation that birds achieve by altering the shape of their wings.