Secretive drone firm to invest $50M+ at Calverton

Facebook's unmanned communication craft is set for testing. In Calverton, maybe?

By JOHN L. KOMINICKI // Calverton’s enterprise zone is near a deal with a Brooklyn aeronautical startup that plans to build giant, solar-powered aircraft that would fly high above commercial jet traffic and beam laser-powered communication signals to earth.

The firm, Luminati Aerospace, has acquired the land and buildings of a skydiving school at the former Grumman test site and is set to invest $50 million and employ 40 to 50 people, according to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

And that’s Phase 1.

“This is probably the biggest business deal on Long Island in the last 20 years,” Walter told Innovate LI, “and it has the potential to bring the aerospace industry back to Long Island in ways we haven’t seen since Grumman’s heyday.”

luminati-craft

Luminati’s French-made gyro-copter, which was registered in the United States earlier this year.

Not much is known publicly about Luminati, which was incorporated in Delaware in April and registered as a New York limited liability company in July. It has since registered a French-made gyro-copter here, the first of its kind in the United States.

Otherwise, the firm has a one-page website up, where a graphic shows aircraft orbiting a planet but offers no contact or other information. The company’s attorneys did not immediately respond to an Innovate LI request for additional information.

Walter said he had signed a nondisclosure agreement and was unable to name Luminati’s financial backers. The company’s plans, however, are strikingly similar to those announced last year by Facebook, which hopes to bring Internet service to the Third World using unmanned, solar-powered craft that fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet for as long as three months. The firm also plans to use satellites to beam communication signals to parts of Africa.

Representatives from Luminati are due at a town meeting on Thursday to further outline their plans, which include erecting a larger facility on the 16-acre skydiving school site. Luminati has also agreed to repave the runway and cover the cost of future maintenance. The firm has requested a 10-year operating agreement with the town, with two 10-year extensions, the supervisor said.

“They want to move fast,” he added. “They would like to have the new building up in five months. They are already buying and leasing homes in the area for employees relocating from other parts of the country.”

Walter said he expects to have an agreement finalized with the firm by Nov. 4, or immediately after the elections.

“The town needs to be able to deliver,” he said.

Facebook’s project is being run through a consortium of technology companies called Internet.org. Its first aircraft, built in England this year, has a wingspan of 138 feet – greater than a Boeing 737 – and is made of carbon fibers that are three times as strong as steel but weigh less than aluminum. The total aircraft weighs about a third as much as a Toyota Prius.

The craft’s lasers can beam communication signals to a spot as small as a dime over 10 miles and at 10 GB per second, or 10 times faster than current state-of-the-art lasers. However, the batteries needed to make the craft’s long-duration flights a reality have not yet been invented, the consortium concedes.

And that’s maybe one of the reasons Luminati is coming here, according to Walter.

“If you consider the tremendous scientific institutions we have, and what’s going on in battery research at Brookhaven National Lab and at Stony Brook University, I think it’s fair to say there will be some collaboration there.

“And,” he added, “there aren’t too many abandoned 10,000-foot runways out there.”

Riverhead officials have entertained dozens of proposed uses for the Calverton property over the years, including an indoor ski slope, NASCAR races and professional polo, all victims of funding shortfalls or civic opposition. Consultants have suggested the runways would never have a future use, and Walter has called the property “the place bad ideas go to die.”

But the Luminati deal, he said, is what Riverhead has needed all along.

“This will be an amazing economic engine for our town,” Walter said. “It will create prosperity and have a tremendous, positive impact on property values. I’m telling everyone, if you don’t have to sell your house now, don’t.

“And if you don’t live here yet, you’d better hurry.”