Board members of Luminati Aerospace, which recently purchased the 16-acre property at EPCAL formerly owned by Skydive Long Island, weren’t sharing the details of their new venture to build large solar-powered, high-flying drones when they met with the Riverhead Town Board Thursday morning.
But they were promising that their project would bring 40 jobs for machinists, CAD draftsmen and engineers to the long-dormant airfield at EPCAL, the former home of Northrop Grumman’s fighter jet testing runway.
Luminati Aerospace, which incorporated as a limited liability company this past summer, is asking the Riverhead Town Board for the “controlling right” to one of the former Grumman runways at EPCAL.
The firm’s CEO, Daniel Preston, said that he hopes that, as his company grows, they will be able to use a second runway at EPCAL.
Mr Preston was the prior chief of Atair Aerospace, a firm that designed military parachutes which he sold for $22 million in 2009.
At the time, according to a 2011 Bloomberg Business report, Mr. Preston was unable to continue working for the defense industry because of a non-complete clause. He switched gears and began experimenting with cacao fermentation, founding Cacao Holdings and opening a commercial chocolate distillery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, at the same address where Luminati Aerospace is now registered as an LLC.
Mr. Preston declined to discuss his work in-depth with the town board or reporters at Thursday’s work session, citing the confidential nature of his contract to build the unmanned aircraft.
“I have to respect the confidential nature of this program and of our client,” he said.
Earlier this summer, Facebook launched a similar solar unmanned aircraft, the Aquila, a carbon fiber boomerang-shaped craft with a 140-foot wingspan designed to provide internet access in hard-to-reach areas.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg announced in March that Facebook had just begun testing one-tenth scale models of the Aquila over the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Google last year acquired Titan Aerospace, which received approval earlier this year to run test flights in New Mexico. Those tests hit some negative publicity in May when a Solara 50 UAV built by Titan crashed into the desert near Albuquerque.
Mr. Preston did say at Thursday’s work session that Luminati Aerospace has put together a “dream team of engineers and university professors” to build “next generation solar aircraft.”
He said 10 executive staff members are currently in the process of buying or renting homes near Riverhead, and he expects the company will initially create “a diverse range” of 20 to 30 local jobs.
He said Luminati Aerospace is looking to build a 40,000-square-foot building on the Skydive Long Island property to house its manufacturing machines, and would like to have a prototype flying in four months.”
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio asked Mr. Preston to ensure that other businesses at EPCAL would also have access to the runway. Though no “commercial” air traffic is permitted at EPCAL, commercial traffic is defined by the aviation community as passengers who pay for their flight, not delivery of freight or equipment.
“We precluded Keith Urban from landing on the runway this summer,” said Town Supervisor Sean Walter.
Mr. Preston said his firm plans to be “very hospitable” to other companies at EPCAL that might want to use the runway, but would not grant Riverhead access to Luminati’s scheduled use of the runway because the schedule would likely change on a regular basis.
Mr. Walter said the town will do everything in its power to expedite the review of the building plans.
“We took people to the moon from this location,” he said. “Once again, we may be at the forefront of aviation. I think that this company is going to be wildly successful.”
While Mr. Walter had said last week that he believes the aircraft have a wingspan of about 160 feet and fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet, Luminati’s representatives didn’t say much about the specifications of their machines at Thursday’s work session.
“We can’t disclose the details, but I think we can tell you they aren’t tiny airplanes,” said Luminati attorney Robert Hastay.
Mr. Preston added that his company is “grossly overinsured.
“It seems like it’s a growth industry, to say the least,” said Mr. Walter. “This is so over-the-top exciting for Long Island and Riverhead. I’m confident we’re going to move quickly.”
“It sounds like one step forward for Riverhead,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen.
The town board has scheduled an Oct. 20 public hearing on the proposed runway lease agreement, which would grant Luminati controlling use of the EPCAL runway for just under $32,000 per year.