Solar-Powered Aircraft Preps for Round-the-World Flight

21 January 2015

Solar Impulse SA (Lausanne, Swtizerland), the company behind a multi-year exercise to demonstrate the viability of solar-powered flight and highlight the need to use the earth's resources carefully, has announced that its Solar Impulse 2 aircraft will begin its flight some time between late February and early March from Abu Dhabi.

The plane has a top speed at altitude of about 140kph (about 90mph). It will fly a 40,000 kilometer route around the world stopping at several cities, including Muscat, Oman; Varanasi and Ahmedabad in India; Chongqing and Nanjing in China; Hawaii and Phoenix, Arizona in the U.S. It will also stop somewhere in Europe or North Africa as it complete is route to Abu Dhabi.

The single-seater aircraft is made of carbon fiber, has a 72-meter wingspan, slightly larger than that of the Boeing 747-8I, but weighs just 2,300kg, equivalent to that of a car. The 17,000 solar cells built into the wing supply four electric motors of 17.5 horse power each. During the day, the solar cells recharge lithium batteries weighing 633kg (2077lbs) which allow the aircraft to fly at night and therefore to have virtually unlimited autonomy.

Around the world in less than 80 days. Source: Solar Impulse.

The aeroplane has almost no payload, carries a lot of batteries and only one passenger – the pilot. So it is not going to threaten fossil-fuel powered flight any time soon, but the demonstration of what is possible using renewable energy is likely to fire the imaginations of observers and advance the use of solar-cells on-board conventional aircraft and elsewhere in the medium term.

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the pioneers of the project will share duties piloting the aircraft. Three ABB engineers have joined the Solar Impulse team on the round-the-world adventure. Their work includes improving control systems for ground operations, enhancing the charging electronics for the plane's battery systems and resolving obstacles that emerge along the route.

Five-day long haul from China to Hawaii

Among the biggest hurdles on the route will be a non-stop flight of five days and nights from China to Hawaii. Each day the plane will climb to altitudes of more than 27,000 ft to recharge its batteries and allow it to stay aloft during the night.

The round-the-world flight comes somewhat later than originally planned. When the first Solar Impulse prototype took its maiden voyage on April 7, 2010, following a short-hop test flight in December 2009, the stated goal was a round-the-world flight to take place in 2011 or 2012.

However since that maiden flight Picard and Borschberg have combined to set a number of aviation records including duration, altitude and distance flown. The prototype Solar Impulse has crossed Europe, North Africa and the United States and have served as a means of gathering sponsors and funds for the round-the-world attempt.

Piccard is the Swiss aviation pioneer who was part of the first team to circle the earth in a balloon in 1999. He almost immediately set about trying to emulate that achievement using a solar-powered aircraft. The 2009 maiden flight came after seven years of research and testing.

Swiss headquartered multinational ABB joined as the main partner of Solar Impulse in 2014 to form an alliance with the vision to reduce resource consumption and increasing the use of renewable energy.

"This is what the world needs," said Piccard in a statement. "Otherwise, we're going to waste all our natural resources."

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