By: Hamish Champ
October 17, 2013
DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — Flight pioneer Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots set to fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane in two years' time, told a K show audience the innovation surrounding the project could help solve many of the world's environmental ills.
Piccard, together with his flying partner André Borschberg, will in 2015 pilot a Solar Impulse aircraft made with the latest composite materials and energy-saving technologies around the globe in 25 days over a period of four months, with each pilot taking the controls for up to four days and nights before taking a break.
As well as its aeronautical achievements, Piccard told an audience at a Plastics Europe presentation that he hopes the project will illustrate what can be achieved when partners from different fields come together for a common cause.
However, despite having successfully flown around the world nonstop in a balloon, Piccard found that the world's aeronautical industry did not believe a solar-powered plane could make the same journey.
Solar-powered planes have already flown, Piccard said, but those planes were small, remote-controlled craft, featuring wing-spans of little more than 4 meters and a payload of a 50g camera to record the flight.
Solar Impulse will have a 64-meter wingspan, weigh the same as a small car and would be flown by a human being.
"The aero industry told us it was impossible. So when we declared some 10 years ago that we would make this attempt we were obliged to continue. We had burned our bridges, so to speak, and we brought on board partners like Bayer MaterialScience AG who were from outside [the aeronautical industry] and would bring with them new solutions untainted by prejudice. They would think out[side of] the box," he said.
To illustrate his point, Piccard said that the company that came on board to build the plane's ultra-light body was not from the aero industry but was a boat builder that had constructed a yacht that had competed in the 2003 Americas Cup. "They knew how to handle composites," he said.
"So we produced a plane that, not including the batteries and solar panels, was 10 times lighter than the best glider in the world championships. But we still had to fly the plane day and night.
"We brought all these elements together: composites, energy-saving technology, lightweight materials and our experience, and they all had to work together, or else the plane would crash. And that was symbolic of the state of Planet Earth," he said.
"The plane is a symbol of our world and the need not only for innovation but for implementation of that innovation as well."
Piccard said the success of a number of test flights, including one from San Francisco to New York, raised the profile of what the team was trying to achieve, particularly in the eyes of national and regional governments.
"The European Parliament used Solar Impulse to illustrate how its energy and environmental policies could work. What went into the plane is available to everyone, now."
The project is an indicator of what could be achieved through collaborative effort, Piccard said, pointing by way of an example to work Solvay Engineering Plastics (Hall 6/C61) had done with BMS (Hall 6/A75-1,A75-3) on the plane's batteries.
Despite the Solar Impulse's obvious environmental credentials, Piccard does not see the project as some sort of an evangelical journey designed with the sole aim of convincing people to live in a certain way.
"We're not telling people what to do, we are trying to get them to think about things. We're not about being green, we're about being clean. We want to highlight the need to reduce the impact of modern life on the world around us," he said.
"We want to use Solar Impulse to get the message across that in order to get a better quality of life risks need to be taken, established certainties need to be questioned and to reject commonly held assumptions and dogmas. The mind has to be open to innovation."