It took 17 years of development and 17 legs for the journey, but in July a pair of intrepid Vikings completed an epic adventure that forever changes how we think of flying. They are Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the first to have circumnavigated the globe in an airplane powered only by solar energy. Those crazy Vikings; always off doing new things.
While the 2016 global flight brought them new-found attention, you might have heard of these guys back in 2010 when their craft, the Solar Impulse, completed the first 24-hour solar powered flight. This flight was manned by Borschberg, once a fighter pilot for the Swiss Air Force. Although he was “buffeted by low-level turbulence after takeoff and chilled by low temperatures overnight” he nevertheless enthused about the experience of, “just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise, thanks to the sun.”
Piccard himself first made history with his 1999 trip around the world in a hot-air balloon, using only a series of jet streams for propulsion. As amazing – and certainly legendary in a literary sense – as that flight was, the implications of this newest accomplishment are far more widespread.
Consider what Piccard wrote in 2004: “Our ambition for Solar Impulse is for the worlds of exploration and innovation to make a
contribution to the cause of renewable energies. We want to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure.” A dozen years later, the pair has certainly accomplished this goal.
In an interview with Fox News, Borschberg said the updated Solar Impulse 2 “has laid the foundations for the broader use of renewable energy in aviation, noting that its electric motor technology is 97 percent energy efficient.”
Now the focus for the team is on solar powered drones that can fly day and night, “essentially taking over the need for satellites in a cheaper and more sustainable way.” The value is immediately apparent, in that getting such vehicles up to altitude won’t require an expensive and energy-hungry space launch; not to mention the crafts can come and go from the stratosphere for repairs and maintenance.
With that goal in mind, the next job for Solar Impulse 2, which has only used up 700 hours of her 2,000 hour lifespan, is to become fully autonomous. This is a tricky project in itself, what with the challenge of keeping the plane aloft during stormy weather.
According to Borschberg, NASA and Airbus are also looking to develop electric airplanes. “I am sure that in five years we will see a lot of small general aviation planes that are electric. There are great opportunities for these technologies.” Facebook is already testing their solar-powered drone Aquila, which is based on the Solar Impulse 2. Their goal: “bring Internet access to unconnected areas of the world.”
Back here on earth, the pair has launched the International Committee of Clean Technology (ICCT), joining forces with the likes of fellow balloonist and hopeful space tourist Richard Branson. The group plans to “continue pushing for more efficient use of technology and to provide guidance to corporations and governments.”
During his announcement of this initiative Piccard claimed that, “Until recently, protecting the environment was expensive and threatened our society’s comfort, mobility and growth. Today, thanks to modern clean technologies, the energy consumption of the
world, and therefore the C02 emissions, could be divided by two, while creating jobs and enhancing profits.”
Piccard later summed up the pair’s incredible accomplishment with typical Swedish practicality: “Maybe sometimes people will say this all started with a crazy idea of flying around the world in a solar aeroplane…and the outcome was useful for everyone.”