The Solar Impulse has taken wing on its 35,000 km journey to circumnavigate the world. The plane will spread the importance of thinking in terms of renewables, while showing off humanities engineering prowess, made possible by various partners to the enterprise, including Altran, Bayer, Google, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and Swisscom.
Flight, presumably since she first saw the eagle soar or on spotting the ducks flying low at dusk, has been held aloft as dream of mankind. Featuring strongly in the imagination of the Ancient Greeks in the Myth of Icarus, where, on attempting to escape Crete on wings of feather and wax – contrary to his father’s stern warning – Icarus flew too close to the sun and, with the wax melting, plummeted to sea. From Leonardo’s fantastical winged innovation to when flight was first pioneered at the start of the 20th century, man’s fascination with flight continued. Today of course, for a small fee and a large carbon step, a flight almost anywhere in the world can be arranged.
Yet innovation continues to develop the dream and, in line with Ferdinand Magellan’s pioneering spirit to be the first to circumnavigate, the latest attempt has taken wing. This time however, the challenge is to be the first to circumnavigate the world in a body propelled only through the light of the sun; this time then, humanity seeks to be lifted by a Solar Impulse – with a crash into the sea now a faraway contingency.
After 13 years of planning, the Solar Impulse SI2 a few days ago took wing from Al-Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi. With the first leg in its 35,000 km journey, a short 12-hour “shakedown cruise” to Muscat, Oman, and yesterday the Solar Impulse SI2 successfully landed on schedule in Ahmedabad, India. If all goes according to plan, the journey will be completed in Abu Dhabi in June or July.
The Solar Impulse project is led by Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, who also co-piloted the first balloon to circle the world non-stop. The impulse for the project is to raise awareness of the importance of renewable energy as well as spur further technical development. "Our primary purpose is not to revolutionise aviation, but the way in which people think about energy and clean technologies", says Piccard. "The world would be able to save up to 50% of the current consumption of fossil energy and produce half of the rest with renewable energies", if the technology involved were deployed on a massive scale.
The technology involved in keeping Solar Impulse in the air is impressive. The plane itself is a single-seater aircraft, made of carbon fibre, and has a 72-metre wingspan — making it larger than that of the Boeing 747 — it has 17,000 solar cells built, and weighs 2,300 kg. Its batteries are charged during the day allowing it hold what the sun gives to fly at night. The plane features ultralight materials and energy savings, including greater reliability and performance of electric motors, efficiency of solar cells, and the energy density of batteries.
Engineering and consulting partners
The project is being supported by a wide variety of industrial, engineering and consulting firms, including Masdar, Solvay, Omega, Schindler, ABB, Altran, Bayer, Google, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and Swisscom. “As Innovation Makers, our job is to provide unconventional solutions to problems of singular complexity. Solar Impulse is an excellent opportunity for sharing our passion for innovation on such an inspiring scale. Although some thought the project unfeasible, our first assessment showed a solution was possible. Confident in our approach, we set out to challenge the ambitious objectives”, remarks Christian Le Liepvre, who is in charge of the Solar Impulse partnership at Altran. “Sharing common values of expertise, performance and passion is right at the heart of Altran’s participation in the project.”
“Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers, but to carry messages. We want to demonstrate the importance of the pioneering spirit, to encourage people to question what they’ve always taken for granted. The world needs to find new ways of improving the quality of human life. Clean technology and renewable forms of energy are part of the solution,” adds Piccard.