Icarus may have flown too close to the sun, but Solar Impulse stayed far enough to go round the world without fuel.
The first fully solar-powered airplane, Solar Impulse finished a historic trip around the world in July, flying 40,000 km, using only electrical power generated from sunlight.
The trip wasn’t an easy or a quick one. It took over a year to finish. The plane set out on it in March 2015, but atmospheric conditions and other technical snags created many obstacles. Starting in Abu Dhabi, on March 9, 2015, the plane journeyed on to India, Myanmar, China, Japan, USA, Europe, Africa, and then finally back to Abu Dhabi (video above).
The founders and pilots of Solar Impulse, Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, and engineer and MBA André Borschberg, alternated on the 17-leg trip. In the video above, posted by Vice’s Motherboard channel, they talk about their motivations, the building of the plane, and the future of clean energy.
The plane is wider than a Boeing 747 but as light as a car, Borschberg says. Piccard explains with amusement how the big pieces of the plane, made of carbon fibre, were made in a shipyard and not an aircraft factory. He says this indicates that “the specialists know exactly how to implement what they have learned, but it's difficult for them to go into the unknown.”
Below is a 360 degree video of the plane taking off and landing.
There was a hiccup in between, because of extensive damage to the plane’s battery, holding things up for about nine months. The plane resumed its world trip in April 2016.
Piccard, the creator of Solar Impulse, comes from an illustrious family of inventors and explorers. His grandfather Auguste Piccard was the first man to fly into the stratosphere in a balloon-powered capsule and see the curvature of the Earth. He also invented the first bathyscaphe, a self-propelled, deep sea submersible.
Auguste Piccard’s son Jacques Piccard, an oceanographer and engineer developed the bathyscaphe and set the deep sea diving record by going into the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench.
Bertrand Piccard also set the world record for completing a non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999. A big proponent of green energy, he says, “The problem with our society is that, despite all the grand talk about sustainable development, we are a long way from making use of the clean technologies that are already available to us."
Solar powered planes aren’t a new concept. The idea was being experimented with already in the 1970s, but until Solar Impulse, the planes had flown only during the day, had no capacity for storing energy, and hadn’t flown over an ocean.
Before creating its round-the-world flight record, Solar Impulse had set the record for oceanic flights, flying five days and nights non-stop from Nagoya, Japan to Honolulu, US in 2015. The journey took 117 hours and 52 minutes. The video below covers highlights of that historic flight.
The official specifications for the plane say it has, “The wingspan of a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the weight of a family car, the power of a small motorcycle, Solar Impulse 2 is the largest aircraft ever built with such a low weight.”
The plane cannot achieve very high speeds, and travelled at an average of 75 km per hour, according to the official website. Being cooped up in a small cockpit undertaking long journeys without sleep or even space to stretch required the pilots to practise yoga, meditation, and self-hypnosis. It allowed for only twenty-minute naps at a stretch.
Despite the size, the cockpit is well equipped to hold everything the pilots may need. The toilet is built into the seat, and vibrating cuffs are built into the arms of the pilot's flying suit to wake him from his twenty-minute nap. There's special food and clothing too.
The video below details all the controls in place inside the cockpit.
The video below is from the India leg of the tour. Solar Impulse landed in Ahmedabad on March 10, 2015, from there flew to Varanasi on March 18 and then to Mandalay in Myanmar.
The ambitious project was launched by Piccard in 2003. Borschberg oversaw the construction of the plane, and after 13 years, the goal has finally been achieved. The team is now working on solar powered drones and on a project for the International Committee of Clean Technology (ICCT).