A Solar-Powered Plane's Round-the-World Journey Is More Than Just a Cool Stunt
Solar Impulse 2, the first completely solar-powered aircraft to attempt to fly around the world, has successfully completed the first two legs of its journey. The plane flew 13 hours from Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Muscat, Oman, followed by a 15-hour tour flight from Oman to Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday.
The plan is for an epic 12-leg tour, taking 25 days of flight time spread out over a five-month window.
While an accomplished mission would be a novel aviation feat, the potential behind solar-powered air travel is no gimmick. Solar Impulse’s creators say they hope the plane’s journey is a wake-up call to an industry that’s burning 16 billion gallons of jet fuel a year and is on course to triple its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“This is the future,” Solar Impulse pilot Bertrand Piccard told National Geographic. “It’s another way to think, to fly, to promote sustainability.”
The single-seat aircraft has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747, but it weighs closer to a Dodge Caravan. It’s covered with 17,000 solar cells that are built into its wings, and in place of fuel tanks, the plane is loaded with lithium polymer batteries—1,400 pounds' worth—to power the four 17.5-horsepower electric motors that propel the aircraft.
“It's a little bit like the Wright Brothers Flyer, 110 years ago,” Piccard told NBC News. While the Solar Impulse 2—top speed: 28 miles per hour—is no 460-passenger, 560-mph Boeing 787, it could pave the way for commercial sunshine-powered planes.
“They had no technology to fly with passengers,” Piccard said. “Nevertheless, after 20 years, the industry developed the system, and there could be passengers in airplanes. So we don't know. Maybe it will happen like this with Solar Impulse.”
Piccard and copilot André Borschberg teamed up shortly after Piccard finished a first-ever 20-day balloon trip around the world in 1999. Borschberg was a tech entrepreneur. Their plan to fly around the world without a drop of fuel was initially ridiculed. But critics stopped laughing when their first plane, Solar Impulse, flew from Silicon Valley to New York in 2013.
The plane had to be massive and have a large wingspan to keep the low-powered aircraft in the air, but it had to weigh next to nothing.
“The aviation world did not have the technology to build this,” said Borschberg. “So we had to bring all of these things together to do it. We stretched the technology to the edge, and then we tried to find companies that would work with us.”
Follow Solar Impulse 2 on its flight here.