Inspirations: Round the world on a wing and a prayer

  • Solar Impulse 2 is a solar powered aircraft designed for a multi-stage circumnavigation.
  • Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg plan to start this month.
  • The project has developed many technologies that will have more widespread uses.
  • Let’s wish them luck!

Eric Prost (CC / Flickr)

On 27th May 1931, Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer entered a pressurised capsule of Piccard’s design and flew a balloon to a record altitude of 15,780m (51,775ft). They were the first people to see the curvature of the earth.

On 23rd January 1960, Auguste Piccard’s son Jacques and Don Walsh closed the hatch of the bathyscaphe Trieste, which Jacques Piccard had designed, and dived to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. At 10,910m (35,800ft), it is the deepest known part of the earth’s oceans. It is a feat that has been repeated once, 52 years later.

On 21st March 1999, Jacques Piccard’s son Bertrand and Brian Jones climbed out of the gondola of the hot air balloon Breitling Orbiter 3, having completed the first circumnavigation of the earth by balloon. Of the 3,700kg of liquid propane they took off with, they had 40kg left. In Piccard’s words, ‘I made a promise that the next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel’. Only a Piccard could say that with a straight face.

If all goes to plan, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg (above) will fly Solar Impulse 2 on alternating legs of the first circumnavigation made by a solar powered aircraft. If that doesn’t inspire you, you must be made of stone.

Piccard spoke about his plans for circumnavigation in 2009, before the prototype had got off the ground. His lecture may have been a triumph of optimism over situation, but he is very close to having done everything he said he would do and he didn’t say anything very different in a more recent interview.


Pioneers don’t deserve cynicism

A few days ago, I was in the midst of the sort of wide-ranging conversation that happens when writers get together in the pub. Someone said something that comes up rather often, that innovation has stagnated. Many people seem to think that if Apple’s latest phone is disappointing and computers today look much the same as computers five years ago, technological progress is a thing of the past.

Yet only a few months ago, a team from the European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet after a flight of half a million miles. People have never stopped building things that do what has never been done before. Solar Impulse 2 is set to be the next pioneering project to be put into motion.

Innovation and exploration

For those who demand more practical benefits, one of the reasons Piccard gives for the Solar Impulse project is that it’s a technology demonstrator for solar power. We meet our energy needs by digging carbon out of the earth’s crust and pumping it into the atmosphere. Very few of us are prepared to scale back to a less energy hungry lifestyle and
even if we were, the world couldn’t support seven billion people without burning a large amount of energy in agriculture and food distribution.


Joseph Gruber (CC / Flickr)

Yet every day, the sun blasts our planet with more energy in an hour than the global economy burns in a year. All the energy we could want is falling from the sky if only we had the technology to catch it. For that reason alone, a project that pushes the limits of what can be achieved with solar power is something to celebrate.

Because pioneering projects like Solar Impulse do not depend on projected profit, they drive innovation that does not have an immediately obvious use. Solar Impulse 2 will be powered by the most efficient electric motor ever built, and the pilot will be insulated by lightweight foam designed for the purpose. The whole design is a triumph of composite materials, which have produced an aircraft with a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747 that weighs less than 2.5 tons, about the same as a minibus. The innovations driven by the need to fly a fuel-free aircraft around the world are likely to find more mundane and widespread applications. The insulation foam used in the cockpit is already being considered as a way to make fridges more energy efficient.

Improving on Icarus


rxbach (CC / Flickr)

While Solar Impulse 2 has only made test flights so far, Piccard and Borschberg have gained considerable experience with solar-powered flight with its predecessor, Solar Impulse 1. At the time it was designed, no manned solar powered aircraft had been able to stay airborne overnight. In July 2010, a combination of highly efficient batteries, the lightweight airframe and skilful flying kept Borschberg airborne for 26 hours. Since then, Piccard and Borschberg have taken most records relating to manned solar powered flight over Western Europe, Morocco and during a multi-stage flight across the US from Mountain View, California to New York.

Solar Impulse 2’s circumnavigation will also be multi-stage, with each step last three to four days. The limiting factor is not the endurance of the aircraft, which can fly indefinitely once it is airborne, but of the pilots. The cockpit is only large enough for one, so Piccard and Borschberg will alternate the twelve legs of the flight.

The story of pioneering aviation combines the triumphs of the pilots who achieved their goals and the tragedies of those who died trying. Piccard and Borschberg know the risks they are taking better than anyone. They will be depending on relatively untested technology to keep them in the air over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their motivations are their business and theirs alone, but we will all benefit from the technologies they are betting their lives on.

I will be following their progress with baited breath on their website. I am particularly interested to know what Piccard will say when he climbs out of the cockpit at the end of this flight.

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Posted in Current affairs, Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
One comment on “Inspirations: Round the world on a wing and a prayer
  1. […] wrote more about the Solar Impulse project last week. The project’s own website follows the flight in realtime, though I’ve been […]

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