It’s an aircraft, albeit a weird looking one that aims to achieve things that have never been done before.
Last year, on the 9 March 2014, I watched slightly bemused as the awkward looking aircraft with a gigantic wingspan and a tiny cabin took off from Abu Dhabi on CNN. This was the first leg of a long journey round the world to prove a point – that it was possible to circumnavigate* the earth powered entirely by the energy of the sun. While we may not see commercial aircraft rising on the wings of the morning any time soon, this proof of concept is definitely one of the bigger steps towards a greener, more renewable future. It is absolutely laudable and demonstrates that a big chunk of the technology for that future, is already here. The official website echoes that message throughout.
As tends to happen to most things that are not short and sweet, I stopped thinking about the Solar Impulse 2 a couple of days later, after all it’s not scheduled to return to Abu Dhabi until August this year. All that changed last week a colleague who is an aviation enthusiast (he flies gliders in his spare time over the mountains straddling Switzerland and France) didn’t stop poking me to follow along as the aircraft did it’s most challenging phase yet, a 117.87hr flight from Nagoya, Japan to Hawaii in the USA crossing the Pacific Ocean and smashing multiple records including; longest solar flight time and distance in a manned aircraft, and longest solo flight in any type of aircraft by time. Shout out to André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, the men who are piloting this expedition.
In the spirit of short and sweet, I won’t bore you with the technical details of the aircraft beyond answering the obvious question of “how does a solar airplane fly at night?” That answer is actually the same for most forms of solar energy exploitation, you have a solar array that supplies power and simultaneously charges a set of batteries when light is available. When the light goes down, the batteries kick in and continue to power the system till the sun is back up. That simple explanation takes years of engineering and hard work to pull off in an aircraft like this so the feat is quite impressive. Let me invite you to discover a piece of the future via the following links.
Official website: this has got tons of information and even links to sign up as a supporter. You can also view in real time data from the plane when it’s in the air including how much power its using and the split between batteries and solar panels etc.
Youtube channel: this has got great clips from the project including some crazy GoPro shots.
Wikipedia: our favorite fallback has information on the entire Solar Impulse project and recommended links to broaden your knowledge of these exciting developments in clean travel.
Go check them out!
Update: unfortunately, during this historic trip issues with overinsulation on the aircraft’s batteries left many cells permanently damaged due to overheating. The entire battery pack will be replaced so looks like the plane is grounded in Hawaii till next year… Too bad 😦
* I’m not sure this is a strict circumnavigation since most of the flights are in the Northern Hemisphere, which means technically the plane will travel a shorter distance than if it had been flying round the equator. But that is besides the point. For a more detailed discussion of circumnavigation, check out this Wikipedia article.