The Wright brothers who made history 111 years ago would not have seen it coming. With stops at Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Nanjing, New York, and other cities, the world’s first solar powered aircraft, Solar Impulse 2, is making aviation history by being the first fuel-free airplane.
Privately financed by Swiss businessman Andre Borschberg and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, the Solar Impulse and its two-person crew of Piccard and Borschberg aim to circumnavigate the earth using only solar power.
The Solar Impulse takes off using its own power generated by photovoltaic cells. The prototype aircraft was referred to as the Solar Impulse 1. Improving on this prototype was the Solar Impulse 2, which started its maiden journey in March. The $150 million plane is expected to circumnavigate the globe in a total of 12 legs with its final halt in the United Arab Emirates in August.
Mounted on the fuselage, wings and tail are 17,000 solar cells, which supplies the power to run Solar Impulse 2’s four motors. To power the plane at night, the cells also recharge four lithium polymer batteries. Weighing only as much as a minivan, that is about 2,300 kilograms when empty, it can hardly be compared to a Boeing 747 whose weight is 1,80,000 kilograms when empty.
Capable of achieving a flight speed of about 25 knots or 46.3 kmph, it can reach an altitude of around 28,000 feet during the day and dip to about 5,000 feet when flying over oceans.
Solar Impulse 2 has set two world records in the journey so far — longest distance covered on a single trip — 1,468 km, and one for a groundspeed of 117 knots (217 km/h).
With only a straight 20-minute rest every two hours allowed for the duo, it is repeated 12 times over a 24-hour period. Borschberg had been practising yoga while Piccard indulged in self-hypnosis to prepare for their long solo flights.
The pilots have to face a lot of personal constraints like not being able to stand during the journey while flying, having to remove the cushion on their seats for access to a toilet. To ward away sleepiness, the pilots are using high-tech goggles that will flash lights.
As the cockpit is not pressurised, the pilots will be able to feel the temperature outside that could range from -40 degree Celsius to 40 degree Celsius.
The 22,000-mile journey will be completed in five months although the actual number of days of flight are just 25. The project aims to make people understand the importance of renewable energy and the spirit of innovation. In fact, Piccard and Borschberg have encouraged people to discuss the project using the hash tag #FutureisClean, as a message for cleaner technologies.
As it is a single seater plane, Piccard shares his flying duties with his business partner Borschberg — only one person can fly at a time while the plane can accommodate two.
People who are interested to know the status of the aircraft can visit Solar Impulse’s website. It provides live information about the plane’s location, plane’s battery status, energy consumption and even how much sleep the pilots have had. Details at www.solarimpulse.com.