By GREGORY ZELLER //
Soaring high above the South Shore and numerous New York City landmarks, the V0 Substrata this weekend made its most ambitious, most adventurous series of flights – a flashy shakedown cruise that also generated critical data for Luminati Aerospace.
Just one week after the 27-horsepower “motorglider,” the first plane developed and manufactured on Long Island since the Grumman Aerospace Corp. pulled out 22 years ago, made its public debut with a 20-minute test flight over the former Grumman Naval Base in Calverton, chief Luminati pilot Rob Lutz took the Substrata for an extended spin.
The Substrata flew nonstop from Luminati HQ to John F. Kennedy International Airport, then buzzed the NYC skyline before a two-legged journey back to Calverton, with a quick stop in Farmingdale.
That last jaunt, from Republic Airport to the former Grumman facility, included a starlight experiment alongside another high-profile solar-powered flight. While at JFK, Luminati CEO Daniel Preston and his team rubbed elbows with French adventurer Bertrand Piccard, who was passing through on his historic round-the-world solar flight.
Noting an “opportunistic departure” on its last leg home, the Substrata crew “took the liberty of showing our respect and gathering data on vortex drag reduction,” Preston said – with Lutz piloting the Substrata in the wake of Piccard’s much larger Solar Impulse 2 as the Frenchman set off on a grueling 90-hour trans-Atlantic flight, which aims to be the first ever completed without fuel or emissions.
The 15th leg of Piccard’s globe-spanning adventure, which began last year in Abu Dhabi, is expected to end in Seville, Spain, sometime Friday.
While Piccard is on a “very different mission regarding the engineering,” the Frenchman is on “an identical mission to better the world and better mankind with a new aviation vison,” Preston said – and to that end, it was a thrill to share the skies, the CEO noted.
But the team wasn’t simply star-struck by Piccard and the Solar Impulse 2. There was an opportunity here to perform critical science, Preston noted, and Luminati didn’t miss it.
Vortex drag and other formation-flight science factors heavily into Preston’s ultimate plans, which include small fleets of UAVs flying in formation – a perpetual-flight, solar-powered system that plugs the connectivity advantages of a much larger drone into a dynamic, interchangeable system that swaps smaller UAVs in and out of formation as necessary.
The dynamics are mind-boggling, but for Preston’s engineers, the two main challenges are clear: developing autopilots that can not only keep the UAVs in tight formation but constantly adjust pitch and yaw to maximize drag efficiency, and balancing out the weight of the batteries required to keep the ships aloft when the sun doesn’t shine.
The midair experiment with the Solar Impulse 2, while short and vicariously thrilling, provided tons of useful data – and in a purely aeronautical sense was a one-in-a-million opportunity, Preston noted.
“Point out another airplane that’s that large and that slow,” he told Innovate LI, noting top Solar Impulse 2 speeds that probably wouldn’t trip an LIE speed trap.
“Until we complete our V1 Substrata, this was our one opportunity to gather this data.”
It was also the perfect capper for the V0 Substrata’s busy weekend. Its flight from Calverton took it over the South Shore and the Atlantic Ocean, with Lutz piloting and Preston following – camera in hand – in a rented Robinson 22 helicopter, a small, insect-like two-seater.
The flight into Queens was thrilling – “Landing at JFK was an unbelievable sight,” Preston noted – and the Luminati team, which actually shared hangar space with the Solar Impulse 2 and its crew, was well-received by airport officials, according to the CEO.
“Ground crews, aviation workers, police … they all came to greet us,” he said. “There was a lot of excitement. And what an impression the Solar Impulse makes … it’s this monolithic aircraft, the size of a new Airbus, and then here we are, this tiny, little aircraft.”
Just as exciting were the V0 Substrata’s subsequent trips over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Governor’s Island and New York Harbor, as well as an “authorized flyover” of the Statue of Liberty, Preston said.
From there, the Substrata – a light solar-electric craft designed to fly with or without a human pilot – winged its way to Farmingdale, met Piccard midair for the historic tandem flight and finally returned to Calverton.
With its “first real world test” complete, the V0 Substrata’s masters will now perform “months of analyses and hardware simulations,” Preston said. The goal is to “obsolete the V0 within six months,” he noted, meaning Luminati Aerospace is hitting the afterburners on its dream of solar-powered perpetual flight.
The company has already made progress on various fronts – from “wind-energy harvesting algorithms” to “game-changing autopilot technology,” according to Preston – and is focused on completing the next ship of the line, the V1 Substrata, this year.
The younger brother will be bigger – twice the size of the V0 Substrata – and will open the throttle to Luminati’s next phase: autopilot formation flight, which will replicate the V0 Substrata/Solar Impulse 2 experiment with two auto-piloted UAVs.
Preston – who likens his ultimate vision to a V-shaped formation of birds, incorporating “swarming and flocking algorithms” to minimize the amount of energy required to keep each aloft – said the tandem flight with Piccard was as scientifically useful as personally exhilarating.
“There are points in your life when you know you’re witnessing history,” Preston said. “They get burned in your brain. This was one of them. It’s that important.”