After 13 years of planning, the Solar Impulse SI2 took off last night from Al-Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi at 7:12 a.m. local time. This initiated the first leg of its historic attempt to be the first solar-powered airplane to fly around the world. If all goes well, the plane will return to Al-Bateen in June or July. As reported here in January, the first leg was a short 12-hour “shakedown cruise” to Muscat, Oman, piloted by Andre Borschberg. The plane landed safely in Muscat, more or less on schedule, at 12:14 p.m. Eastern time.
Of the two pilots who will take turns behind the wheel, Borschberg is the engineer and former fighter pilot who is intimately familiar with every detail of the plane’s design and construction.
This is a flight that representatives of the aviation industry, when approached, said couldn’t be done, at least not to their standards of safety.
Of course, it should be understood that commercial aviation operates with a high margin of safety. This flight has many known risks that would not be acceptable to commercial flyers. That is why these two men, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, are pioneers, risking their lives for a principle that they believe in. That principle is, in essence, we can do it without fossil fuels.
The known risks are twofold. The first is the limited amount of energy that can be stored in the batteries. This has been addressed by numerous technological advances including super lightweight materials throughout the plane, high efficiency solar cells and advanced battery technology, and high performance energy management software. The margin of safety has improved substantially here since the journey was first envisioned. From the time the sun goes down, assuming the plane has climbed to its maximum altitude of 28,000 feet, it has about 11 hours before it must either be back in view of the sun or it must land, said Christophe Béesau, Altran’s senior expert on Solar Impulse for advanced modeling and simulation. This includes several hours of gliding time.
The second risk is the wind. The plane has enormous wings, about the same size as a Boeing 747, both to enable gliding and to support the 17,248 solar cells that are needed to collect energy from the sun. At the same time, it is extremely lightweight to minimize energy consumption, weighing little more than an SUV. Because of this combination, it is difficult to control in high wind conditions, especially when taking off and landing. For this reason, a full-time crew of meteorologists is deployed at Mission Control in Monaco, to help guide the flight to areas where conditions are most favorable.
The landing in Muscat was delayed by approximately one hour as the plane circled over the Indian Ocean, waiting for the wind to die down.
The two ocean crossings are expected to be the biggest challenges. These will take as long as five days and nights with a single pilot. The pilots will be allowed to sleep for 20-minute intervals using special techniques designed to enhance rest. During those periods the plane will be on autopilot.
The first takeoff was delayed by eight days by sandstorms in the area. After landing in Muscat, the plane is expected to take off again today for a record-setting flight to Ahmedabad, India with Bertrand Piccard at the helm. Piccard, the originator of the project, descends from a long line of explorers going back to his grandfather Auguste Piccard, balloon explorer of the upper atmosphere and his father, Jacques, who explored the deep sea.
In Piccard’s words, “Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers, but to carry messages. We want to demonstrate the importance of the pioneering spirit, to encourage people to question what they’ve always taken for granted. The world needs to find new ways of improving the quality of human life. Clean technology and renewable forms of energy are part of the solution.”
For more information about the journey, including live video feeds, visit the Solar Impulse website.
Image courtesy of Solar Impulse
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he attended the World Future Energy Summit as the winner of the Abu Dhabi blogging competition.
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