Swiss pilots Betrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg are hoping to write themselves into the history books with the first solar powered, all electric flight around the world which took off from Abu Dhabi this week.
Over the next five months the zero emissions aircraft will fly through Oman, India and China, where it will then cross the Pacific ocean and call in at Hawaii and the USA before crossing the Atlantic into Europe or North Africa before finally landing back in Abu Dhabi.
Solar Impulse weighs just 2,300Kg and has a 72 metre wingspan, some 3.5 metres longer than the latest Boeing 747-8I. It has a speed range of 20kts (22mph) to 77kts (47mph) and is made of very light carbon fibre. Whilst it has the potential to fly non-stop it is limited by human endurance abilities, and can carry a single pilot and no passengers. As an electrically powered aircraft, using only energy stored from its solar panels it has zero emissions – 0g of CO2 per Kilometre.
As a comparison, a 747-8I has a maximum take-off weight of 448,000Kg and has a cruising speed of Mach 0.855 (570mph at 35,000ft). It has a range of 9,210 miles with 467 passengers and baggage. The B747-8 is one of the greenest aircraft manufactured today and produces approximately 35Kg of CO2 per Kilometre*.
On this epic trip round the world, the pilots are only able to take naps lasting 20 minutes every two to four hours, and are using specially developed light emitting glasses to help them sleep. The lights are programmed to flash in very precise patterns to send the pilot into a deep sleep very quickly, and bring them out very quickly too. Another difficulty is the size of the aircraft. In order to save weight the pilots are restricted to their chair, which acts as a seat, bed and toilet throughout the flights, which will last up to 5 or 6 days and nights in a row on the “long-haul” legs of the trip. In order to save weight the cockpit is unpressurised and unheated, although the cockpit structure does employ high density thermal insulation.
At the time of writing the aircraft had recently landed in Ahmedabad having covered the 1,465Km from Oman in 16 hours.
It’s safe to say that Solar Impulse is uncomfortable, impractical and slow – but with huge potential for increasing global awareness of solar energy and showcasing the cutting edge technology involved in this 12 year-in-the-making adventure, the Solar-Impulse team will be hoping their pioneering flight is a success.
Keep up to date with the mission progress at www.solarimpulse.com
*Based on 100% load. And if you think 75g per passenger kilometre is a lot, the greenest 1.4L TSI VWs produce upwards of 85g per kilometre.