Italian defence and aerospace company Leonardo has invested in US/Spanish large-scale solar-powered unmanned aerial systems (UAS) start-up Skydweller Aero.

The investment will help advance the development of a fully electric unmanned aircraft, which will feature ‘unlimited range and ultra-persistent endurance’. It will be capable of conducting flights with heavy payloads.

Financial details of the transaction have not been disclosed. However, Leonardo noted that it will serve as the main contractor in Italy, the UK, Poland and Nato.

The project’s first phase will involve transforming the aircraft from a manned platform to an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV). This will be achieved with the use of advanced autonomy algorithms and vehicle management systems.

During the second phase, the company will focus on the first production version of the unmanned aircraft. It is expected to take place in 2021.

The OPV is anticipated to perform autonomous flights next year.

Skydweller CEO Alessandro Profumo said: “As the key technological investor and partner of the project, Leonardo will broaden its capabilities in new power systems, autonomous flight, innovative aerostructures, ultra-light materials and eco-friendly technologies to improve the company’s competitive advantage in the aerospace business for the next 20 years.”

Skydweller is being designed with the ability to operate from existing global airbases.

Although the aircraft will comply with European export laws, it will not fall under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions.

The aircraft will be used in land and maritime surveillance missions and also for industrial geo-information services, telecommunications and navigation.

All development works will be conducted at Skydweller facility in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain.

A dedicated Leonardo team from its Aircraft division will be part of the development and engineering activities.