The magic of Solar Impulse

13 07 2010

Solar Impulse, an innovative aircraft powered solely by solar energy, completed its first real stress test a few days ago – a 24-hour nonstop flight. For those of you not into airplanes, let me tell you that this is a true milestone in aviation history. Something to make you stop and say: “Wow.”

Solar Impulse

The prototype plane with the callsign HB-SIA, which weighs just 1,600 kilograms – less than your average SUV – looks like an over-dimensional dragonfly, too fragile, you might think, to be able to withstand wind and weather at 28,000 feet. HB-SIA’s wingspan is as wide as that of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and covered with about 12,000 solar cells. The aircraft is designed to fly day and night by saving surplus energy from these solar cells in high-performance batteries that then power the four electric engines.

Solar Impulse is seven years in the making and the brainchild of adventurer Bertrand Piccard (of “Breitling Orbiter 3” fame), and pilot André Borschberg. The plane was conceived, designed and built right here in Switzerland. In a couple of years, Piccard and Borschberg plan to circumnavigate the earth in five days and nights with its technologically even more advanced successor, HB-SIB, fueled only by the power of the sun.

The aviation industry, that most fossil-fuel-dependent behemoth, is once again being shaken up by a couple of guys who said to themselves: “Why the hell not?” Their idea has turned a lot of heads. But I guess all major inventions start out that way – with nothing more than an idea and a vision and a sketch on a paper napkin. The toughest part of invention is getting everyone else to believe that idea is not just a bunch of hokey horseshit.

It’s only been a little more than 100 years since humans learned to fly. And in those hundred years aviation technology has made amazing strides forward in terms of speed, efficiency, reach, ease and comfort. (Okay, point taken… traveling in cattle class is no longer comfortable.) In the scheme of things, a completely solar-powered aircraft is something to get really excited about – for everyone, and not just for pilots and airplane freaks like me – even if the technology is still in its infancy. “When you took off it was another era,” Piccard told Borschberg after his 26-hour flight last week. “You land in a new era where people understand that with renewable energy you can do impossible things.”

I know we won’t be hopping on a solar-powered commercial aircraft in the foreseeable future, and I would guess not even in our lifetimes. So what’s the point of all this, ask the skeptics. Couldn’t we spend those 100 million bucks it is taking to get this bird in the air on other, more useful and practical projects? Well yes, of course. But what Solar Impulse and visionaries like Piccard and Borschberg are doing for aviation and, well, the world, really, is simply to show that IT’S POSSIBLE. And to encourage and inspire all the rest of us.

Now how cool is that?

André Borschberg in the cockpit (July 7, 2010)

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