A solar plane has flown around the world for the first time - Showcasing its currently limited capabilities

07/28/2016 - 22:26

Scott Ryan | @_scottryan | Image: Solar Impulse

After the Wright Brothers successfully tested their idea of creating a controlled flying machine, there was surprisingly little public interest and the Associated Press even turned the story down.

We have come a long way from their initial prototypes, and the impact on the world has been astonishing. The public is clearly much more appreciative and fascinated with airplanes today. From being awed by the Blue Angels at an air show to flying on commercial airliners and looking out into the vast distance, modern aviation has come a long way from the First Flyer and the De Havilland Comet.

With the successful landing of the first solar plane to fly around the world, we have just witnessed the next great milestone in aeronautics history.

The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft finished its 17 stage journey around the world in 558 hours 7 minutes. It was dual piloted by André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard. The duo set 19 official aviation records on their global flight!

"The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let's take it further."
- Bertrand Piccard - Quote from BBC Science and Environment

The aircraft has a wingspan larger than a 747, but its average speed is a mere 75 km/h (~43 mph). It has 17,248 monocrystalline silicon solar cells (23% efficiency) on the top of the giant wings. This energy was stored in lithium polymer batteries (energy density of 260 Wh / kg) which powered the electric motors (17.4 hp) to spin its four propellers.

" The entire system is 94% efficient, setting a record for energy efficiency.

Even with all these high tech and efficient capabilities, there were many setbacks along the way. The journey actually started in March last year, but was postponed for 10 months due to bad weather and battery issues. Flying in the right conditions are a necessity, especially having clear sunny skies to keep charging the batteries.

As solar cells, batteries, and materials advance to greater efficiencies, we will see continued growth in this field. In 2013, the Solar Impulse made the first Transatlantic flight. In 2016, the Solar Impulse 2 made the first circumnavigation in 17 days. What will the Solar Impulse 3 be capable of? A continuous flight around the globe? Circumnavigating in less than 24 hours? For the curious, the current continuous circumnavigation record is held by the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. It completed the flight in 67 hours averaging 590 km/h (~342 mph).

There is still a lot of breakthroughs necessary to bring solar avionic systems to commercial viability for transportation, cargo, firefighting, farming, military, etc.

Nonetheless, the feat is an important step to further our understanding and capabilities of what we can accomplish. In 113 years, we have come a very long way from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Imagine what our aircraft will be capable of in the next century. If we don't have nuclear fusion powered vessels by then, maybe we'll have had some researchers focusing on building these airships that sail on light...

Images: Ryan Church