You’ve probably heard about the ambitious, almost impossible-sounding project to fly a solar-powered plane around the world without refueling. But now, about a year before the voyage is scheduled to begin, you get your first look at the plane itself. It’s unlike any plane you’ve seen before.
Behold: the Solar Impulse 2. With a wingspan of 72m, it’s broader than a 747 but contains a cockpit large enough for just one person. The wings are completely covered in 17,248 solar cells, each as thin as a human hair. The fuselage and components, meanwhile, are made using an innovative, mass produced carbon fibre technique, and the whole thing is covered in carbon fibre sheets that are three times lighter than paper. The plane is powered by four ultra-light electric motors that are over 90 per cent more efficient than standard thermal motors.
So it’s light. In total, it weighs just 2300kg. To use the same point of comparison, a 747 weighs a staggering 400,000kg. Of course, megajets can carry a lot more cargo, but that’s not the point. The Solar Impulse 2 is designed for maximum energy efficiency.
Next March, the plane will take off from the Persian Gulf, and fly over India and China before beginning its marathon journey across the Pacific. It will fly at an altitude of 8500m during the day, when the sun is pumping those solar cells full of juice, but will drop down to 5000m at night to conserve energy. While the plane will touch down to change pilots from time-to-time, it must make it all the way across both the Pacific and the Atlantic without any breaks. For the pilot, this means five to six days in the air — the Solar Impulse 2 only goes about 60km/h — practically without sleeping. This will not be easy, but they have been testing different techniques to ensure that the pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, can endure it.
The cockpit itself is designed with these long hauls in mind. In order to cut down on weight, some sacrifices had to be made. For instance, there’s no heat or air conditioning, a real bummer since the air temperature outside the plane will yo-yo from -40C to 38C. There is a rigid, highly insulating foam that should help shield the pilots a bit, but it will inevitably be an uncomfortable ride from time to time. There’s also no beverage service on the flight. The pilots will eat specially designed food and drink from a straw. When it’s time to go to the bathroom, they will just go. There’s a toilet built into the specially designed reclining chair.
Again, the biggest challenge on the journey are those days-long jaunts across the ocean. The pilots will get to take cat naps every few hours but will be trained to wake up, fully alert, at any sign of trouble. Because of weight constraints, there won’t be a full-fledged autopilot on board, so any time the wings dip more than five degrees, the sleeve of the pilots’ custom-made flight suits will vibrate so they can course correct.
But hopefully they won’t. Already several years in the making, the Solar Impulse project brings together some of the most prominent Swiss and European companies in the world, from Omega watches to Schindler elevators. Even Google’s thrown some chips in the pot, offering up the Hangouts platform during the project. If this had happened half a century ago, you’d expect some crazy genius like Howard Hughes to be behind it, but it is, in fact, a well thought-out, corporate-funded bonanza that everyone expects will produce innovations that can later be brought to market. You know, in case you want your own giant, solar-powered plane with a toilet in the cockpit.
In all seriousness, the innovations already made on everything from carbon fibre to solar cells are pretty damn exciting. When this thing finally flies next year, it will show the world what’s really possible with solar-powered vehicles. In the meantime, the suspense is just killing us. [Solar Impulse]
Pictures: Solar Impulse / AP