Solar Impulse 2 (SI2) completed the first round-the-world flight by a solar-powered aeroplane, after touching down in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. In the last one year, pilots Betrand Piccard and André Borschberg travelled 40,000 km without one drop of fuel.
The final leg of the journey (Cairo-Abu Dhabi) was a bumpy one, with turbulence driven by hot air, leaving 58-year-old Piccard fighting with the controls. “The last leg was difficult. There was a lot of turbulence... I flew three nights and only managed 45 minutes of sleep each night. But we are extremely happy with what we have achieved,” an elated Piccard told HT.
“Our flight is over but the real work of spreading the #futureisclean message across the world begins now,” André Borschberg said . “Our aim is to regroup clean tech forces to develop resource-efficient technologies”. The duo has announced the formation of a foundation that will work towards developing clean technologies.
The SI2 is a gorgeous silver-coloured single-seater airplane that has a wingspan of a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the weight of a family car, the power of a small motorcycle, and is the largest aircraft ever built with such a low weight.
The SI2, however, is not the first solar airplane, but it is the first to fly day and night, without any fuel, only using solar energy stored in its batteries. It is also the first to achieve an oceanic crossing: Five days and nights from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii.
“We started dreaming about this journey in 2002-03, beginning with a feasibility study,” Piccard said.
Their goal: Show the world that “talks sustainability but does nothing” that if an airplane can fly several days and nights in a row with no fuel, then clean technologies can be used ground to reduce energy consumption, and create profit and jobs.
“We thought the aviation giants would be keen to collaborate with us on this journey because this is right up their alley. But they showed no interest,” recounted Piccard, who comes from a family that has a long tradition of scientific exploration and protection of the environment.
Piccard and Borschberg realised that to build such a special plane they would have to go out of the system and look for “disruptors” . So they reached out to non-aviation sectors: Chemical, insurance, engineering and even champagne firms. In the next 13 years, these companies put in their financial and technological forces to build SI2, “an airplane of perpetual endurance”.
“For example, the company we identified for building the carbon fibre plane specialises not in aircraft building but in yachts that participate in high-profile events like the America’s Cup. SI2 is insured by a company that is into insurance of renewable technologies such as windmills,” Piccard explained.
Even though the pilots were on his own in the plane during the flights, they were never alone . They were always in touch via satellite with the Monaco Mission Control Center , where the team, which included weathermen, mathematicians, air traffic controllers, planning engineers, flight director, monitored the route and managed performance and energy of the aircraft.
Flying long hours in a coffin-sized cockpit was mentally and physically exhausting.
“To do such long hours, that too solo, you’ve to have the right body and the mindset,” 64-year-old Borschberg told HT. “To keep fit, I did yoga I learnt from my guru, Sanjeev Bhanot.”
Despite the stress of organising the adventure, getting a multi-disciplinary team together and flying long hours the duo is unanimous that “the journey has been fantastic experience”.
“The beauty of the project is that we have used the best of technology and integrated it with nature,” added Borschberg.
Piccard describes the feeling of flying SI2 as like a science fiction movie. “It’s ethereal, unreal. The propellers are turning, there is no noise, no fuel, and it is running from the sun. It’s like being in a fairytale, it’s so addictive.”
Recounting his Atlantic crossing, Piccard said: “It was difficult with lots of cloud turbulence but it was a symbolic journey for us; once upon a time, this journey from Europe to America opened a new world. Today, the reverse journey opened another new world: From fossil fuel to renewable energy”.
So when will we see solar commercial flights? “I am absolutely certain that in 10 years, we will see solar-powered short haul flights,” the pilots said.
But they feel that the aviation industry will not invest in such technological changes. Look at Tesla. “It is not a car company; it is technology company, which is building electric cars. Likewise, this electric plane will be built by probably Google or Facebook,” said Piccard.