Solar Impulse was unveiled recently in Switzerland and is said to be the world’s first operational solar powered plane. It has the wingspan of Boeing 747 and yet it weighs less than a compact car. The longer wingspan will improve its aerodynamic efficiency. Plus it will give a greater surface area to place the solar cells.
Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot Andre Borschberg are planning to take the plane on a trip around the world in 2012. For now they’re doing some test flights with it, to gather enough data to improve on its efficiency.
The plane features an array of 12,000 solar panel cells that are used to charge lithium batteries. It also has four electric motors which can provide a maximum of forty horsepower. The plane will have a takeoff speed of 22 mph with a cruising speed of around 44mph.
Bertrand Piccard can use the experience he earned while travelling nonstop around the world in a balloon. But with this solar plane flight, they will need to make stops along the way. The pilots will need to change places, and stretch, after long periods spent cramped in the cockpit. His co-pilot, Borschberg is an experienced airplane and helicopter pilot.
Solar Impulse will have its first test flight later this year. They plan to take the plane out for a night flight in 2010. Piccard stated that they will take the plane gradually off the ground. They’ll start will one meter, then three meters, then five meters. If everything goes well, they will then take it to altitude.
The plane will not be flying during bad weather because it needs the sun’s energy for day-time flying, and to charge the lithium batteries to be used at night. It will be a challenge for the team to plot a flight path that will avoid stormy situations.
Piccard has this to add with regards to the Solar Impulse:
If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled solely by solar energy, let no one come and claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers.’
Major sponsors of the project are Solvay, Omega Watch, and Deutsche Bank. Solvay designed the cockpit as well as other parts of the Solar Impulse, using lightweight polymers. For more information with regards to the solar plane project, visit its official web site here.