Perpetual flight, endless optimism at Luminati

The sky's the limit: With "perpetual flight" now in play, Calverton's Luminati Aerospace is soaring toward new heights ... but first, it must land a deal with the Town of Riverhead.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

From the Bodies in Motion Tend to Stay in Motion file comes Luminati Aerospace, which has achieved what it’s calling “perpetual stratospheric flight.”

According to the Calverton-based company, a “groundbreaking in-flight experiment” and two years of subsequent data-crunching prove “perpetual stratospheric flight by means of fully automated vortex-seeking formation flight” is possible.

In English: The startup aerospace company’s solar-powered planes can stay aloft virtually forever – a potentially ginormous breakthrough that could create unparalleled intelligence-gathering opportunities and deliver Internet access to the most remote corners of the globe, where billions of people can’t jump on the Information Superhighway due to satellite and physical-connectivity limitations.

The science is predictably thick – adaptive vortex formations, wing aspect ratios, drag reductions and other sophisticated aerodynamic technobabble not easily consumed by the layman.

But the bottom line, according to founder and Chief Executive Officer Daniel Preston, is that Luminati Aerospace has leveraged artificial intelligence, next-level aeronautics and buckets of hard work to overcome “the limitations of current battery technology and achieve this game-changer of all game-changers.”

“Perpetual flight will give Internet access to 4 billion people who presently have no access at all,” Preston, also his company’s chief technology officer, told Innovate LI. “And the use of perpetual flight by our military … will greatly enhance our national security.

“This technology is critically important to national security,” he added. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of another engineering project in the world today that will have such an effect on mankind.”

Integration of the various technologies behind the science and the “loop simulations” proving they work took place in Calverton, Preston said, but the key flight that helped prove out the possibility of perpetual flight took place over the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.

That was when the Solar Impulse 2, the solar-powered brainchild of French scientist/adventurer Bertrand Piccard, took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport on the transatlantic portion of its historic round-the-world journey – and Luminati Aerospace’s solar-powered Substrata V0 tagged along, at least for a short while.

Daniel Preston: At home in Riverhead.

The experiment – meant to show the power-saving benefits of solar planes flying in tight formation – required what Preston dubbed “typical American spirit,” as the Solar Impulse 2 team “emphatically refused” Luminati Aerospace’s requests for a tandem flight.

“We set off on a mission to intercept the Solar Impulse 2 as it departed over the Atlantic,” the CEO said. “We didn’t need their permission because we didn’t require coordination with them and we didn’t need to put any of our autopilot electronics or code on their aircraft.”

Solar Impulse 2 took off around 3 a.m. and the Substrata, with only 30 percent battery power at the ready, followed. Preston and his team fully expected to lose their prototype plane in the effort, and with its pilot wearing a life vest and ready to ditch in the ocean, Preston himself piloted a chase helicopter, ready for the rescue.

The Substrata, it turned out, had just enough juice to glide back to safety – and the experiment, according to Preston, was an unqualified success.

“Three days of no sleep rewarded with some of the most valuable data ever collected, and validation of our aero model, aircraft and hard work,” he said. “This was a truly historic flight.”

Two years later, Luminati Aerospace has officially announced what it started to learn that fateful night: Multiple solar-powered aircraft outfitted with advanced-AI autopilot systems and flying in formation (think geese) can fly virtually forever.

Next on the company’s agenda: the design and construction of larger solar-powered aircraft (the 27-horsepower, one-seat Substrata is relatively small) capable of carrying heavy commercial communications equipment and surveillance/reconnaissance payloads.

Preston, who remained tightlipped when pressed about potential contracts with government or military customers, said he’s hopeful the work will continue in Calverton, where Luminati Aerospace has hung a shingle at Calverton Enterprise Park, on the grounds of a former Grumman Aerospace Corp. facility.

“Some of the local politicians have made things extremely difficult for our business,” the CEO said, referring to a long string of political battles between Riverhead Town Hall and Calverton Aviation and Technology, an LLC founded in 2017 by Triple Five Real Estate 1 and Luminati Aerospace that’s looking to purchase more than 1,600 acres of town-owned land for $40 million (it has been a rocky flight from the start).

But even though “seeing people make decisions based on false information has been disheartening,” Preston remains intent on doing business in Calverton.

“I’m local now,” he said Thursday. “I live here and I’ve brought jobs here. The site and its history are unbelievable.

“Riverhead is an amazing location with great people and great potential,” Preston added. “We just want to work.”