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Finance & Innovation

Solar-Powered Plane Completes Historic Round-the-World Trip

The Solar Impulse aircraft landed in Abu Dhabi Monday night, completing the first solar-powered, round-the-world flight. The 26,000-mile journey (42,000 km) was accomplished in 17 separate trips stretching back to March 2015. The experimental plan’s journey set 19 aviation records.

“The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further,” pilot Bertrand Piccard said to a cheering crowd upon landing in Abu Dhabi.

The historic global flight was intended to demonstrate the viability of solar energy. Its success sends “a clear message: everybody could use the same technologies on the ground to halve our world’s energy consumption, save natural resources, and improve our quality of life,” according to the project’s website.

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The plane stopped in 16 different cities, starting in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015, and going east around the world. It stopped in India, Myanmar, China, Japan, the United States, Spain, and Egypt before returning to Abu Dhabi last night.

Solar-plane-first-global-trip-BODY-Global Map of trip.jpgImage: SolarImpulse.com

Piccard and his partner Andre Borschberg flew the plane called “Solar Impulse” on each of its 17 trips. The pair have been working on the project for over a decade.

Borschberg piloted the plane through its longest trip, a record-setting 118-hour continuous solo flight that went from Nagoya, Japan, to the US state of Hawaii. The flight was a triumph but also led to delays in the around-the-world effort. Damage to the plane’s battery system during the five-day trip in June 2015 combined with unfavorable summer weather conditions grounded the plane for 10 months.

The plane itself is an experimental design that features a 72-meter wingspan, almost 4 meters wider than a Boeing 747. The wings carry more than 17,000 solar cells that power four electric propellers.  The entire flying machine weighs 2.3 tons, or about the same as a large automobile.

Solar-plane-first-global-trip-BODY-Full plane layout.JPGImage: SolarImpulse.com

The cockpit is small, forcing the two pilots to share a space about the size of a telephone booth. Piccard and Borschberg had to wear oxygen masks because of the high altitude. And despite the long distances for each leg, the two men were only allowed to sleep for 20 minutes at a time.

The Solar Impulse’s flight is a statement about the viability of its alternative power source and integrated batteries. It unfortunately may not be the future of manned aviation.

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In addition to the Solar Impulse’s relatively slow airspeed, the huge wingspan and lightweight frame make the plane highly susceptible to wind gusts. On the final flight from Cairo, Egypt, to Abu Dhabi, Piccard fought heavy turbulence most of the way over the Saudi desert.

The future of solar powered flight may belong to drones. Airbus already makes a solar powered “High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite” for surveillance. And Facebook made headlines at the end of June for its first successful test flight of the “Aquila Drone” which is intended to beam continuous internet service to rural and hard to reach areas.

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While Piccard and Borschberg may not usher in a new era of human flight, the team believes the flight can help increase the use of alternative energy. And considering their monumental achievement it’s hard to argue with them.