Flying around the world on solar power

2016 was a historic year for aviation and climate change. For the first time, an airplane, known as Solar Impulse 2, powered entirely by solar power, flew around the world with no fuel or polluting emissions. The flight was done to inspire people all over the world to protect our quality of life by adopting and using energy efficient and renewable energy technologies.

Taking five days and five nights, the flight took 13 years of planning and vision to achieve. The flight was broken down into individual stages, flown by two different Swiss pilots – Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg – who alternated each leg and took 700 hours to complete. Covering 40,000 kilometres, the record breaking flight started in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and after 17 gruelling stages finished back in Abu Dhabi.

The plane’s journey is remarkable in itself. It started on 9 March 2015 and finished on 23 July 2016. In between starting and finishing in Abu Dhabi the two pilots flew to the cities of Muscat, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Chongqing, Nanjing, Nagoya, Hawaii, San Francisco, Phoenix, Tulsa, Dayton, Lehigh Valley, New York, Seville and Cairo.

Speaking to The Guardian, prior to the final landing in Abu Dhabi, Picard said that “it is a very, very special moment – it has been 15 years that I am working on this goal.” Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, labelled it “a historic day for humanity” adding that “Solar Impulse has flown more than 40,000 kilometers without fuel, but with an inexhaustible supply of energy and inspiration.”

A former medical doctor, Picard was the initiator and chairman of the project, while Borschberg, a professional airplane and helicopter pilot, was the co-founder and CEO. Together, they combined a grand vision with exceptional entrepreneurial and managerial experience. However, they would not have been able to complete their journey and break the record, without the dedicated and loyal support of their team of 90 support staff, including 30 engineers, 25 technicians, 22 mission controllers as well as the financial and technological support of over 100 partners.

Picard said that “all the clean technologies we use, they can be used everywhere. So, we have flown 40,000km, but now it is up to other people to take it further. It is up to every person in a house to take it further, every head of state, every major in a city, every entrepreneur or CEO of a company.”

In total, the plane was designed to fly 2000 hours during its lifetime, meaning that it can still be used for further flying, research and climate change awareness activities. It has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747 and carries more than 17,000 solar cells on its wings. Weighing 2.3 tones, the cells were used to charge the plane’s batteries which made up a quarter of its total weight. During day flights, the pilots would climb up to as high as 29,000 feet in order to charge the solar cells while at night it would glide down to 5,000 feet in order to conserve energy. The average flying speed was around 30 miles per hour although it could fly faster when the sun was bright.

Yet, the pilots journey was not all smooth sailing. The mission team experienced strong crosswinds in China in 2015 leading to delays while flying over the Pacific Ocean they had overheating issues forcing the Solar Impulse plane to be stored inside a Hawaiian hangar for the winter. The team also experienced financial difficulties at different stages which required them to raise additional sponsorship.

Despite their record breaking achievement, the planners, partners, pilots, sponsors and other stakeholders are determined not to rest on their laurels. Picard and Borschberg have established the International Committee of Clean Technology (ICCT) in order to promote energy efficient technologies in response to the challenges faced by the world today. Work is also being done to promote the design and use of solar drones.