The Orville and Wilbur Wright of the Green 21st Century
Ten years ago, on March 21, 1999, after close to 20 days in the air, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones’ balloon “Rozière” landed in the Egyptian desert, so ending the first non-stop circumnavigation of the earth in a balloon. And giving inspirational birth to the dream of Solar Impulse.
This incredible dream launched by Piccard and André Borschberg of flying day and night with an airplane propelled solely by solar energy, without fuel or polluting emissions, is now a reality.
Satisfied with the results of short tests conducted since December, taking the plane no higher than 2 feet and flying no more than 1,000 feet in distance, the ‘green’ light was given. On April 7, 2010, at 10:27 in the morning, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA took off from Payerne Airfield on its successful maiden flight. Flying above western Switzerland at an altitude of 5,500 feet (1,676 meters) for 87 minutes with German test pilot Markus Scherdel at the controls in the chilly open cockpit.
The Solar Impulse, with it’s 12,000 solar cells, is a prototype for a closed cockpit, two pilot aircraft intended to circle the Earth without fuel in 2012. A night flight is planned before July, and then the second plane will be built based on the results of those tests. It is ultimately expected to attain an average flying speed of 43 mph (70 kph) and reach a maximum altitude of 27,880 feet (8,500 meters). The trip will be divided into five stages that will keep the plane in the air for up to five days at a time.
The output of the craft’s photovoltaic cells is about 20%. Two criteria were used for this selection: the output versus the weight. The cells chosen are made of silicon mono-crystalline of a fine thickness. Today there exist more high-performance technologies with up to 30% output, but they are heavy. It is obvious that a significant improvement of this output would also improve the airplane’s performance and reduce its wingspan or increase the payload.
In their solar circumnavigation Piccard and Borschberg will make regular stops to switch places and stretch after long periods in the cramped cockpit – and to show off their aircraft.
Solar flight isn’t new, but this project is by far the most ambitious. In 1980, an ultra-lightweight experimental solar plane called the Gossamer Penguin flew short demonstration flights with one pilot on board. A bigger project called the Solar Challenger flew a single pilot from France to England in 1981 in a trip lasting more than five hours.
It took seven years to get to this day, building a carbon fiber aircraft, which has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 (208 feet / 63.4 meters) and weighs as much as a mid-sized car (3,527 lbs / 1,600 kg). Engineers adhered solar cells on the wings, the craft’s underside and on vertical surfaces such as the tail to capture reflected light. The energy for the four electric motors is stored in on-board high-performance lithium batteries allowing for night flight.
How does this benefit us as currently the technology only allows the transport of a single person on a flight of 24 hours (due to human limitations)? Well, if we go back into history, when the Wright brothers got their first plane to fly a distance of 120 feet (200 meters) in 1903, could they have imagined that 66 years later, two men would walk on the moon?
When asked about the risk involved, the project’s website states – “… isn’t it also the case of our generation running the risk of not being able to hand down the planet to future generations without a major human and technological disaster? The pilot (pilots) will be equipped with a parachute, but our world doesn’t have any such protection to face the climate change! In other words, the greatest risk is not flying on board the Solar Impulse, but keeping on wasting our world’s energy and raw materials!”
Protecting the environment too often still remains associated with a restriction of mobility and financial sacrifice. The economic benefits offered by a true policy of sustainable development must be shown, including new products, new prospects, new sectors offering jobs, market share and profitability.
“There has never been an airplane of this kind that could fly – never an airplane so big, so light, using so little energy. So there were huge question marks for us,” said Piccard, “The goal is to fly day and night with no fuel. The goal is to demonstrate the importance of renewable energies, to show that with renewable energies we can achieve impossible things.”
Tags: bertrand piccard, circumnavigation, climate, egyptian desert, energy, environment, german test, go green, green, high performance technologies, kph, maiden flight, maximum altitude, night flight, open cockpit, orville and wilbur, orville and wilbur wright, photovoltaic cells, second plane, significant improvement, solar cells, solar impulse, test pilot, water, western switzerland, wind, wingspan