By GREGORY ZELLER //
A gallery of high-ranking observers watched Dan Preston’s dreams take flight Friday – and along with them, a potential rebirth of a once-great Long Island industry.
In a sun-splashed coming-out party attended by an impressive gallery of regional rainmakers, Preston’s Luminati Aerospace officially debuted the V0 Substrata, a light solar-electric craft that can be piloted or fly autonomously and represents a soaring climb toward Luminati’s perpetual-flight objectives.
The big picture: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that can continuously cruise the stratosphere over connectivity-challenged regions, delivering telecommunications and Internet services to as many as 4 billion underserved people around the globe.
Friday’s showcase flight at Luminati Aerospace’s Calverton headquarters, conducted by chief Luminati pilot Rob Lutz, featured a half-size version of the UAV Luminati ultimately plans. Preston, citing confidentiality agreements with his startup’s original customer, told Innovate LI he hasn’t been at liberty to discuss what Luminati has been doing since moving into the former Grumman Naval Base last summer – but those agreements are winding down, the founder noted, and the time has come for the V0 Substrata to shine.
“That confidentiality agreement is coming to pass, so we’re able to show a little more in public,” Preston said. “And we very much want to show everyone what we’re doing.”
What Luminati Aerospace – a dream team of aerospace masterminds, including a who’s-who of former Northrop Grumman and Raytheon engineers – has been doing is tackling the biggest challenge to perpetual flight: power storage.
Despite advances in solar-power technologies, it takes hundreds of tons of batteries to store enough juice to keep a plane aloft at night, in bad weather and at other times of low sunlight – and very quickly, Preston noted, the math becomes “non-practical.”
“There’s not a single group in the world that’s been able to fly through the night for a winter solstice at a given latitude,” added the big thinker, who’s reinvented himself many times – from aeronautical engineer to chocolatier and back – and holds more than 100 patents, many involving flight systems.
Luminati Aerospace’s solution, so far, is the V0 Substrata, the first aircraft to be designed and built in Calverton since the Grumman Aerospace Corp. pulled out more than 22 years ago, after merging with Northrop Corp.
In addition to the solar panels mounted along its 43-foot wingspan, the part-piloted, part-UAV hybrid – a 27-horsepower “motorglider” with a 200-nautical-mile range and a 28,000-foot altitude limit – also features “wind-energy harvesting algorithms,” Preston said, pushing its sustained-flight limits beyond typical solar-powered drones.
“The solar cells are curved, allowing varied degrees of efficiency,” he noted. “And it can harvest energy from any wind gust or gradient, so it doesn’t matter if the wind is blowing up or down or any direction.
“The plane is always seeking to maximize energy efficiency by adjusting how it’s pointed.”
While Friday’s test flight was relatively short – “We can keep Rob up there all day until he gets sunburned,” Preston noted – it was a strong example of the progress Luminati Aerospace has made over the past 12 months. And it’s doubly impressive, according to the CEO, since the first half of Luminati’s year in Calverton “was tied up with lawyers and getting everything set up.”
“I really don’t feel like it’s been a year yet,” he noted. “But now our machinery is just starting to be set up and we’re hiring some people.”
The machinery is “two main production and assembly machines” arriving soon from Spain and Germany. Once in place inside Grumman’s former F-16 production facility, Luminati Aerospace – which incorporated in April 2015 in Delaware and registered as a New York LLC in July, when it announced a $50 million investment to turn the abandoned Calverton complex into an aeronautics hotbed – will push the throttle on its perpetual-flight development.
Preston still can’t reveal Luminati Aerospace’s initial client – an industry source told Innovate LI persistent rumors that Luminati is developing UAVs for Facebook “aren’t wrong” – and wouldn’t even confirm the client is still on board, though he did cite an ongoing non-discussion pact preventing him from doing so.
He also noted interest from an array of potential customers, ranging from telecommunications companies to Internet providers to cell-phone chip manufacturers. And a Luminati Aerospace release promoting Friday’s event noted the company’s efforts to develop “government ISR (for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations.”
Preston said he expects to “have the first production pulse by Halloween” and plans to “produce assembly line machines this year.” He’s also looking to “have aircraft in the field beginning next year in India,” he said.
The CEO also took advantage of Friday’s media event, which drew a healthy selection of regional lawmakers and clean-energy activists, to offer an update on his startup’s joint venture with Great Neck-based SeaMax America, manufacturer of the M-22 amphibious aircraft.
Although it’s “completely unrelated” to his company’s perpetual-flight work, the joint venture – which will relocate M-22 manufacturing operations to Calverton – fits well with Riverhead Town’s wishes to “ramp things up faster” at the former Grumman facility, Preston noted.
Instead of strip malls and similar retail development, “we offered to help Riverhead architect a master plan,” he added, and the strategy now is to bring in “synergistic anchor tenants” – starting with SeaMax America – to encourage a new aerospace hub.
“This takes us from zero to a hundred miles an hour overnight,” Preston said, noting the M-22 work will involve “several hundred aircraft” and will “create a large amount of jobs.”
Production of the amphibious aircraft will also begin in October and represents another big part of Preston’s “dream come true, to be involved with aviation in Calverton.”
“We couldn’t be happier,” he said. “The only thing that will make me happier is when the machines arrive and are set up.”
The nuts-and-bolts SeaMax America partnership is also the perfect complement to the perpetual-flight R&D – not a flight of fancy, but certainly several years from becoming a practical science, according to Preston.
The CEO said his company would continue to “play nice with others and sublicense technology” as it’s developed – “this project has too great of a social impact to play monopoly” – and remains focused on its ultimate goal of “getting a product into the field for the betterment of everything.”
With the V0 Substrata brightening Calverton’s skies and Luminati’s grand plans taking shape, the only thing left to do, according to Preston, is climb.
“We feel a big responsibility to help the local economy,” he said. “We want to do right by everyone involved. So we’re fully committed. And we’re really digging in for the long haul.”