Solar Impulse – Technology Shines Bright

It takes dedication, a passion for aviation and unwavering determination to turn a dream into reality. The vision that both Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg share does not enter unexplored territory, but seeks to improve on a concept that was first experimented with in the 1970’s. Piccard and Borschberg took the knowledge and lessons learnt from the first solar powered aircraft, such as the Solar Challenger, Solair 1, Sunseeker, Icare 2 and the Helios, to the create the Solar Impulse project.

The Solar Impulse project has attracted large companies that believe in investing in the future of aviation, enjoy the thrill of exploring new challenges, and want to push technology to the limit. Therefore, companies such as SolarMax, Dassault Aviation, BKW, Omega, Solvay, Semper, Victorinox, Altran, Deutsche Bank, ESA and the EPFL, have joined forces to ensure the success of the Solar Impulse. In short, the Solar Impulse project aims to build an aircraft that will be able to take off from the runway and fly on its own, around the world, using only solar power.

Some were skeptical about the Solar Impulse’s ability to charge enough power during the day to keep it in flight during the evening, but on 21 May 2007, the controlled Solar Impulse took off from Honolulu. Severe weather conditions caused the flight to end in Phoenix, Arizona, instead of Florida, but the Solar Impulse flew 6 120 kilometers none-the-less, reaching its goal of successful flight at night.

The envisioned aircraft, to be unveiled approximately between 2009 and 2010, will have a wingspan of eighty meters. This provides maximum surface area for the aircraft’s solar cells to charge the batteries with enough solar power to sustain flight during the day and at night. Sandwich composites that are generally used have an estimated density of 10 kilograms per square meter, where as the composites designed specifically for the Solar Impulse will hopefully weigh 0.5 kilograms per square meter. The ultra-thin solar cells on the wings have also been designed to withstand vibrations, turbulence and deformations, through their flexibility. Lithium batteries in the wings of the aircraft will store the energy that has been collected during the day and Photovoltaic cells transform the energy to electricity. The cockpit of the aircraft will have oxygen and pressurization, which will allow pilots to fly at a maximum cruising altitude of twelve thousand meters. It is hoped that the aircraft will safely take two pilots into the skies and return them thirty six hours later, which will be a momentous achievement for the team and everyone involved in the project.

There are no fast answers in aviation, and a project like Solar Impulse is done on a long term schedule. Slow, precise and innovative progress has gotten them this far, and it will most definitely see them reach all their goals in the future.