ROME — Leonardo will be the leading investor in a new solar-powered drone capable of carrying an 800-pound payload and which will fly for the first time in 2021, the Italian defense company said Monday.

The Skydweller drone, initially developed by an American-Spanish startup involving Northrop Grumman experts, will be “the world’s first fully electric unmanned aircraft capable of carrying large payloads with unlimited range and ultra-persistent endurance,” the firm said.

Skydweller will also be free from the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, with Leonardo acting as the “main industrial partner,” a spokesman said, as well as prime contractor for sales to Italy, the U.K., Poland and NATO. The system will comply with European export laws and will not be subject to ITAR, allowing “the aircraft to satisfy government and commercial needs around the world,” Leonardo said.

Skydweller is based on the Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered aircraft developed by Swiss engineers that flew around the world in 17 flights during 2015 and 2016.

Developers see the Skydweller as pushing the limits for payloads for solar flight, while operating at medium altitudes — lower than the high altitudes for which such aircraft have usually been designed, and allowing onboard sensors and transmitters to operate at closer range to the ground.

Aimed at civil and military customers, the drone is expected to offer surveillance, communications and navigation capabilities, and be interoperable with existing air bases.

Development and construction of the new aircraft is to take place in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region. Leonardo plans to create a dedicated engineering team following its entry into the program as an investor, the firm said.

The first phase of the program will involve converting the manned Solar Impulse 2 into an optionally piloted vehicle with autonomous flights planned for next year.

The second phase envisages an unmanned version flying in 2021, the firm said.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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