‘Aviation industry doubted Solar Impulse would succeed’

Solar Impulse 2, the solar powered plane, arrives at Al Batin Airport in Abu Dabi to complete its world tour flight on July 26, 2016 in the United Arab Emirates. Solar Impulse 2 landed in the UAE early on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, completing its epic journey to become the first sun-powered airplane to circle the globe without a drop of fuel. KARIM SAHIB / AFP

In the year 2015, the commencement of the First Round-The-World Solar Flight, from Abu Dhabi to Hawaii, begun and it achieved the longest solo solar flight ever achieved in aviation history.

But in 2016, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the pilots and founders of Solar Impulse completed the first circumnavigation of the globe with no fuel. With their solar aircraft, a flying laboratory full of clean technologies, they flew 40,000 km to promote the use of renewable energies and energy efficiency on the ground, for a better quality of life. Across the Round-The-World flight, the team overcame technical, human and operational challenges that had never been faced before.

After the 8 world records set by the Solar Impulse prototype, when it became the first solar airplane ever to fly through the night, between two continents, and across the United States, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg accomplished the ultimate phase of the adventure: the 2015-2016 First Round-The-World Solar Flight.

Strategies had to be invented from scratch to allow Solar Impulse 2 to fly across the Pacific for 5 consecutive days and nights, and become the first solar airplane to accomplish an oceanic crossing. This historic and record-breaking flight from Japan to Hawaii was achieved by André Borschberg in July 2015. Bertrand Piccard then finished crossing the Pacific, and flew over the Atlantic, making Si2 furthermore the first solar plane to have crossed the world’s two biggest oceans.

Solar Impulse is not the first solar airplane, but it is the first to fly day and night, without any fuel, only using energy stored in its batteries. It is also the first to have crossed oceans: 5 days and nights from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa, Hawaii; 3 days and 2 nights from Kalaeloa to San Francisco; and 3 days and nights from New York to Seville, Spain.

Solar Impulse’s flight schedule went thus, the first flight Abu Dhabi to Muscat, Muscat to Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad to Varanasi, Varanasi to Mandalay, Mandalay to Chongqing, Chongqing to Nanjing, Nanjing to Nagoya, Nagoya to Hawaii, Hawaii to San Francisco, San Francisco to Phoenix, Phoenix to Tulsa, Tulsa to Dayton, Dayton to Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley to New York, New York to Seville, Seville to Cairo, Cairo to Abu Dhabi.

With such flight schedule tabled before Solar Impulse’s 80 engineers and technicians, under André Borschberg’s leadership, they had to find highly innovative solutions. What major civil and military aircraft makers thought impossible was achieved by the ingenuity of a small team.

Historically, solar aviation began with model aircrafts in the 1970s, when affordable solar cells appeared on the market. But it was not until 1980 that the first human flights were accomplished.

Bertrand Piccard, co-founder of Solar Impulse descends directly from a long tradition of exploration, scientific development and protection of the environment. His grand father was Auguste Piccard; a physicist and explorer of the stratosphere with the first flight in the stratosphere i.e. the first man to see the curvature of the earth, he paved the way for modern aviation. While Bertrand Piccard’s father Jacques Piccard was the inventor of the submarine (the bathyscaphe and the absolute deep-sea diving record). Bertrand Piccard conducted the first non-stop, round-the-world, balloon flight.

In a nutshell, the Solar Impulse was and still is about two pioneers Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg backed by a resourceful team; flying around the world with a solar airplane to promote clean technologies.

At the United Nations COP22 Conference in Marrakech, Morocco held in November 2016, Dr Bertrand Piccard had an interview with Dolapo Aina. Do read the excerpts.

Tell us about your first innovation, the Solar plane (Solar Impulse Plane)
Solar Impulse is the first plane of perpetual endurance. It can fly theoretically forever without any fuel because during the day, it flies in the sun; the sun gives the energy to run for electrical mores to run the batteries. So, we can then spend the night in the air on the batteries, on till the next sunshine and continue the same process.

And we can do several days and nights in a roll. It is the demonstration that all these technologies (clean technologies as we call them) can achieve incredible goals. It can be so energy efficient that the amount of energy from the sun is enough to fly day and night.

What made you think of a solar plane that would not need fuel? Because if I were right, it took you five minutes to think about the concept but took you a decade to actualise it. Why that long?
It took five minutes to know how much energy we would get from the sun. But then, it took a decade to be able to make the plane so energy efficient, that it would fly day and night with little amount of energy we could get and this was the big achievement. It is more a question of energy efficiency than a question of only production of solar power.

What are the challenges you encountered, trying to convince people; getting financial partners to back you up?
You know the world of aviation did not believe in us.

Because they thought it was impossible. When you are an expert, you only reproduce what you have learnt. You learn a lot but you are a prisoner of it. When you are not an expert, you can have the mind completely open. You can find other ways of doing things. You make other decisions and choices. And also, my colleague Andre Borschberg, he was not an aviation expert (neither am I). So, we were free enough to invent something new. I like to say that, it is not the people selling candles who invented the light bulb. You need disruptive ways of thinking. You don’t take a better candle when you need a light bulb.

When the Solar Impulse was accomplished; a lot of people came onboard?
Now, people see that it is possible, which was my goal. I am now creating The World Alliance for Clean Technologies. In order to bring together all the actors in the field of clean tech, not only production of solar power but also energy efficiency, saving of natural resources. There are so many people who have big or small solutions. Solutions that have not come to the attention of people and are not in the spot light. Sometimes, they do not even find funding. Or like ABB, it is bog solutions that need to make their way into every government who is desirous of making a change.

My goal is to bring them together and make a catalogue of all the solutions available. Maybe one thousand solutions within two years. And give the possibility to the negotiators, decision makers, regulatory decision makers and other preparing the future, to have access to the wide range of solutions. This is so because these solutions are profitable; they create jobs, they make profits. And this is what we need, if we want to convince people to be more environmental friendly and fight climate change. Also, it needs to be profitable.

Like the Solar Impulse plane; have you been facing challenges; obstacles with people believing in this new initiative of yours or is everybody coming onboard since you were able to accomplish a feat which was unthinkable?
Thanks to the flight around the world by Solar Impulse; now, people take the World Alliance very seriously. We have a lot of support from the media, social media. And a lot of people are writing (after the announcement) to indicate their interest to join as members.

What is the next initiative for Mr Bertrand Piccard?
This is really the initiative I am working on. This is where I am going to put the next years of my life.

And from your own perspective, what would be a success story?
The success story is when you can improve quality of life of people in this world. Because today, there is not enough compassion for people who are suffering. There is not enough work to fight against poverty. There is not enough work for quality of life, health and education. This is what we need in our world; not to go back to the moon (this has already been done.) what we need is to make a better quality of life on earth. And we need to really encourage people to go into that direction.

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