Revolutionising air travel

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An idea that was developed over a decade ago by Swiss inventors, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg could revolutionise air travel. Solar Impulse 2 will set off on the very first circumnavigation of the globe by a solar-powered plane next year. Built with 17,000 solar cells, four propellers and with a wingspan of 72m, it actually weighs no more than a motorcar…

The world’s first solar powered aeroplane is to make the very first circumnavigation of the globe next year. The project, led by Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut, Bertrand Piccard and Swiss businessman, André Borschberg is a revolutionary innovation allowing the solar-powered plane to fly anytime and perhaps most importantly, without fossil fuels.

Piccard and Borschberg developed the concept of Solar Impulse at the beginning of 2004 with the first prototype introduced just a few years later. Solar Impulse 1 has been on many test runs over the past few years in preparation for the big circumnavigation planned for 2015.

Its first test flight took place in December 2009 with the world’s first manned 26-hour solar powered flight taking place the following July. On this occasion the plane was flown by co-founder André Borschberg and reached 28,500ft which, at the time, was the highest and longest flight that had been conducted by an unmanned solar-powered aircraft.

Further test runs included flights from Switzerland to Spain and Morocco in 2012, followed by a USA flight in 2013 with both Piccard and Borschberg at the controls. Fitted with 11,628 photovoltaic cells on the upper wing surface, provided by SunPower, the horizontal stabiliser generates the electricity during daylight hours, not only propelling the plane but charging the batteries in preparation for night time flying.

The first Solar Impulse plane set a number of world records, including the longest manned solar-powered flight at 26 hours, the first inter-continental flight in a solar-powered plane and the greatest distance covered on a piloted solar-powered flight.

After 12 years of in depth research and numerous successful test runs with Solar Impulse 1, the team introduced Solar Impulse 2 which will attempt the world’s first solar-flight circumnavigation in 2015. The flight will see the solar-powered plane circle the globe in the Northern Hemisphere. The team plans to have five stops to allow for pilot changes and it is expected that each leg of the flight will last between three and four days.

The single seated aircraft, which is made from carbon fibre amazingly only weighs just over two and half tonnes, the equivalent of a motorcar. Piccard explained: “It’s the wingspan of a jumbo jet and the weight of a car.” Construction of the solar-powered plane began in 2011 and with a wingspan measuring an impressive 72m, it is larger than the Boeing 747-81 at only 68.5m.

The 17,000 solar cells, much like Solar Impulse 1, supply the electric motors with renewable energy. During the sunlight hours, lithium batteries are recharged turning the propellers allowing for night time flying. Essentially, the solar-powered plane provides unlimited flying time as it will never run out of fuel and the lithium batteries are continually recharged.

Solar Impulse 2 allows the team to test new materials and different construction methods which had not been previously used with the solar impulse plane. The circumnavigation of Solar Impulse 2 was originally set for 2012 but due to structural issues, the expedition was postponed to 2015.

After an official presentation to the public in April this year, the inaugural flight of Solar Impulse 2 happened only last month. Taking off from Payerne airfield in Switzerland on 2nd June, the solar-powered plane returned two hours later after a successful flight.

After landing Solar Impulse 1 in Brussels after its Switzerland test flight in 2011, Piccard said: “Our goal is to create a revolution in the minds of people…to promote solar energies, not necessarily a revolution in aviation.”

Further test run flights of Solar Impulse 2 are scheduled in the next few months, all in preparation for its big circumnavigation next year. One of the biggest challenges facing the solar air team is the crossing of both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, which could take up to five days.

This innovative design is not only exciting but revolutionary in the field of both sustainable energy and aerodynamics. It’s certainly an interesting thought that all aeroplanes could, perhaps sooner than we thought, take you on your travels using only photovoltaic cells and rechargeable batteries.

Speaking to the BBC after its test flight last month, Piccard explained: “An aeroplane like this is absolutely unique. And for the first time in history, we have an aeroplane that is flying with no fuel day and night, showing the incredible potential of the clean technologies – all these technologies that the world can also use in order to reduce the dependency to fossil fuel and to be cleaner and solve a lot of problems of pollution.”

Follow the progress of Solar Impulse 2: www.solarimpulse.com

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