Solar Impulse Back On Its Epic Flight
Last year solar impulse 2 attempted to fly around the globe powered purely by sunlight.
Solar Impulse Continues Its Flight After A Long Delay
Unfortunately, during the last leg from Japan to Hawaii the plane suffered some damage to its batteries. Once in Hawaii the team identified problems with overheating batteries that required a major overhaul. This put the completion the plane’s journey on hold. With the work completed and the longest day of the year about two months away, the team was ready to resume its journey — the long leg from Hawaii to San Francisco.
It’s not just the plane but also the team that has been rebuilt following the dramatic decision at the time, which upset some members of the team. A disagreement occurred during the same challenging trip from Japan to Hawaii.
One of the key safety systems on the plane wasn’t working: the electronic box called a “virtual co-pilot”. It’s a tool that monitors the plane while the human pilot rests, and will sound the alarm if the craft starts to go off course or do something it shouldn’t. Continuing the long leg of the flight without one of the key components working properly and challenged by strong winds seemed like a bad idea for most of the engineering team. They wanted to turn back to Japan, however, Andre Borschberg (the pilot and visionary) insisted on going forward.
“But it was a drama because some of the engineers threatened to resign immediately as they did not understand my decisions,” said Andre in an interview to BBC.
After arriving, Andre took the time to re-engage the team by going through a communications and team-building exercise that helped rebuild team turning it into a stronger unit.
The solar powered plane is now in Pennsylvania and will soon take off on the next leg of its journey to cross the Atlantic, after that and a few more hops it should touch down in Abu Dhabi to complete its round the world flight.
If successful this will be the first time a solar-powered piloted plane has flown around the world and while it’s not likely to change the way we go on our holidays its will certainly be a landmark moment that will pave the way for all sorts of future tech advances.
Solar Impulse Has Encouraged A Number of Tech Advances
The plane had to be made as light as possible — while still efficiently harnessing the energy of the sun. While the 17,248 solar cells that cover the wings of the plane are not new tech, they have been revamped to become very light. Unlike the panels commonly used on buildings, the panels on the plane’s wings could not be encased in glass — instead, they were covered with a new light-weight, transparent and flexible plastic developed by Belgian chemicals giant Solvay. Solvay has also made new components for the plane’s batteries which increase their storage capacity by 10% while reducing their weight by 2%.
Scientists at the EPFL the European Space Agency and Dassault have also explored the question of how the Solar Impulse is to best use the small amount of power it has. The research has allowed them to look into new ways to optimize energy flow — the results of the research were sent to Neuchâtel-based manufacturer Etel who were then able to develop motors which yield 96%.
“Without an exceptional project like Solar Impulse, we wouldn’t have invested the funds, the time or the energy necessary to achieve it, and then to extend it to the market as a whole,” said one of the company’s representatives.
Another change inspired by Solar Impulse is a Swiss-manufactured solar elevator — a direct result of the manufacturer’s collaboration with EPFL.
Swiss watchmaker OMEGA, has developed a converter to power the cockpit electronics describing it as “lighter, more compact and more efficient than other similar products available on the market”.
Some cockpit technology was focused exclusively on monitoring the state of the driver. The cockpit was equipped with sensors for watching over breathing, heart rate and brain activity of the pilot. “This is technology that could be used in cars,” some experts have suggested.
Read more about the Solar Impulse 2 journey