Solar Impulse: Heralding the Viability of Solar-Powered Flight
On July 13, 2016, the Solar Impulse 2 landed in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. One more flight to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and it will complete the round-the-world journey that it started when it departed from Abu Dhabi in March 2015.
It was not a smooth journey, Solar impulse had some serious setbacks and it has taken more than a year for a single airplane to carry a single person over the entire world. A Boeing 747 could do the same in about 51 hours while carrying more than 400 passengers along with their luggage.
But the truly exciting thing about this achievement of the Solar Impulse plane is the greater implications for the viability of solar-powered flight later down the road. It’s a landmark moment that is sure to go down in aviation history.
The Future of Solar Flight
Bertrand Piccard – one of the two pilots behind the project along with Andre Borschberg – does not expect commercial airlines to offer solar power anytime soon. He is, however, looking at smaller passenger planes capable of carrying up to 50 people that charge their batteries and can fly up to 500 kilometers.
He sees this technology coming around within the decade, though current advances in drone technology might bring solar power to us even sooner than 10 years.
Drone technology has developed at a mind-numbing pace in recent years, to the point where you could actually buy a personal remote-controlled quadcopter drone for as little as $50.
And yet even these tiny drones are tied to the ground by the need for fuel. Lithium-ion batteries may be light and reliable, but you still need to charge them every now and then.
Solar Impulse 2, however, has shown that solar technology has become viable enough to power an aircraft for long periods of time – maybe even indefinitely. Couple this with the shrinking, cheapening nature of computer parts, and you have the perfect power supply for small unmanned aerial vehicles to keep flying all over the world. This could be a cheaper and more sustainable way to deliver internet connectivity with high flying solar powered plane relaying network data rather than satellites. In fact Facebook is already invested in this with its Aquila project.
There are still problems, of course. Light craft are particularly vulnerable to shifts in the weather, and investment in green technology is in a bit of a pinch thanks to the current low price of oil.
Still, indefinitely flight has long been the dream of solar enthusiasts.The journey of Solar Impulse 2 is another step in the slow but steady realization of that dream – and is set to further accelerate as the world slowly shakes off its addiction to fossil fuels.
Boosting Solar Awareness
The most important achievement of the Solar Impulse planes, however, is their ability to capture the imagination of people. People are starting to see that solar power isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy that ignores the more practical side of things.
The duo that take turns piloting the plane, Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, claim they want to raise awareness of renewable energy and the technologies behind the project.
With the accomplishments of Solar Impulse 2, we now see that solar power has advanced enough to become a viable option for fueling growth. The plane was able to generate enough energy to use during the day while leaving enough to charge the batteries for use during the night.
This is a pretty big boost when it comes to convincing people that solar energy is more than a pipe dream. The core message is that solar is here, and it’s a viable technology for powering more than just toys and calculators.
Photos courtesy of http://www.solarimpulse.com/