The experimental flying lab better known as Solar Impulse 2 was launched today in Abu Dhabi. The groundbreaking airplane will circumnavigate the world flying both day and night without using a single drop of fossil fuel. Said co-pilot Betrand Piccard, “You can achieve miracles with renewable energy and clean technologies.”
Piccard and co-pilot Andre Borschberg (pictured left and right, above) announced that their game-shifting flight will begin in late February (weather-dependent) and return to the UAE capital about four months later. Which pilot flies first will be settled by a coin toss.
Abu Dhabi was selected as the best departure point due to its climate, infrastructure, and commitment to clean technology. The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, more commonly known as Masdar, is providing logistical support – shipping the plane from Switzerland to the UAE – as well as supporting flight launch and landing events.
Piccard told the audience, “We aim to achieve what no one has even dared to try”, explaining that the project has no predecessors from which to cull designs or glean lessons learned. “This is to prove that the impossible is possible,” he added.
This plane has a 72-meter wingspan (similar to a Boeing 747) and is made of innovative technologies that maximize functionality while reducing weight: at 2,300 kg, it weighs as much as a family car.
An array of technical partners have been involved since project inception, including Google, Belgian chemical company Solway, power and automation giant ABB, Bayer Material Science, elevator-escalator experts Schindler, Swiss Re, Altran and others listed on the Solar Impulse website. Their collective research and innovative product development has already found non-aeronautical applications in improved insulation for homes and home appliances, solvent-free fabric manufacture, lightweighting of automotive vehicles, and new battery storage solutions for solar-generated energy.
The pilots described their route which includes stops in 12 countries flying eastward from Abu Dhabi and entails continuous flights across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The plane will descend to 9,000 feet during night travel to minimize energy use, which in turn influences their flight path, requiring that they avoid highly mountainous terrain.
Geopolitics also plays a role in route planning. Piccard recalled that, 16 years ago when he circumnavigated the world in a hot air balloon, all countries in the Middle East were potential landing points. Civil war, radicalism and unrest in the modern Middle East means that today, during their Mediterranean crossing, few nations are safe for landing and for hosting associated media events. So they presently plan to fly from Spain or Morocco across Saudi Arabia on their return to the United Arab Emirates.
Pilots will alternate after each estimated 20-hour leg, stopping for plane maintenance and to alternate positions in the cockpit. Each stop will be coordinated with site events focused on education and public engagement. Human capability will be as tested as technology. Equipped with bespoke flight suits that monitor vital signs, protect from cold temperatures, and act as wearable toilets, it remains to be seen whether the men will be able to endure long periods of wakefulness and maintain alertness.
One reporter asked if the pilots were afraid of the risks. Piccard tossed back, “I’m more afraid to live in a world that burns one billion tons of oil every hour that destroys the planet and pollutes the environment, than to fly solar-powered planes.”
Another reporter asked if Piccard was aware that a Star Trek character, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, shared his name. The pilot replied that the fictional character was in fact named after his grandfather’s twin brother, Jean Felix Piccard, a pioneer of early ballooning. This man is genetically wired for this expedition.
Solar Impulse 2 has over 17,000 solar cells embedded on its wings which power four 17.4hp electric motors. The cells also charge lithium batteries which will allow for continuous night flight. An earlier prototype of the solar plane successfully completed the first night flight in 2010.
The plane is equipped with five cameras allowing the entire flight to be broadcast live on the Solar Impulse 2 website. The project aims to be interactive and incite support and raised awareness of the need to wean the planet off fossil fuels. An online survey will launch soon, inviting the world to send urgent messages to their leaders and governments pressuring for sustainable policies and investment. In December, the pilots will bring the results of that survey to the 21st session of the COP climate talks in Paris.
“Many governments say we need more R&D, we need to wait, before we have renewable energies in their country. Forget that, we have today enough energy efficiency technologies to halve the consumption of the world, and renewable technologies that can provide the rest,” said Piccard.
Find more information and track progress on the Solar Impulse 2 website – link here.