A solar powered electric aircraft called Solar Impulse was featured on the CBS television program 60 Minutes on Sunday, December 2, 2012.
The Swiss-made 4-engine all electric plane, tail number HB-SIA, was built using ultra lightweight composite materials. Its designers, Bertrand Piccard and his business partner, Andre Borschberg, are planning to fly a second prototype version, HB-SIB, on a flight around the globe projected to take 20 days and nights in 2015, as reported on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 by Red Orbit, Slate, and the Solar Impulse web site.
The aircraft has already flown nonstop on a 13-hour international flight between Payerne, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium on May 13, 2011. It also completed its first intercontinental flight, a 19-hour trip from Madrid, Spain, to Rabat, Morocco on June 5, 2012.
The plane has a total loaded weight of 3,500 pounds, and a maximum takeoff weight of 4,400 pounds carrying only one pilot. Each of its 10 horsepower electric motors are powered by lithium-ion batteries and by 11,628 photo-electric cells that are integrated into the surface of the plane's 2,200 square-foot wing area spanning some 208 feet, longer than that of an Airbus A330.
Development of the experimental aircraft began in 2003 at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, but Piccard's concept goes back to 1999. The project has cost a total of $120 million dollars raised from corporate sponsors and investors. He assembled a team of 50 specialists from six countries, assisted by about 100 outside advisers.
The solar powered plane is financed by a number of private companies. The four main partners are Deutsche Bank, Omega SA, Solvay, and Schindler. Other partners include Bayer MaterialScience, Altran and Swisscom. Additional supporters include Clarins, Semper, Toyota, BKW and STG. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Dassault have provided additional technical expertise.
The Solar Impulse has a takeoff speed of 22 miles an hour and requires 500 feet of runway. It has a cruising speed of 43 miles an hour and a service ceiling of 27,900 feet. Due to its lightweight, low power to weight ratio, and large surface area of its wings, it is particularly vulnerable to high winds and other atmospheric conditions.
A first attempt to fly from Brussels to Paris to attend the 2011 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport was aborted due to adverse weather conditions, but finally succeeded two days later on June 14.
An around the globe flight would be especially challenging, but would use a pressured cockpit, advanced avionics, supplemental oxygen and other environmental support systems that would allow the second prototype to fly at an altitude of 39,000 feet.
It has already been proven that the aircraft can fly at night, drawing on battery power which is recharged during daylight flying. Cloudy conditions at lower altitudes do interfere with the plane's ability to generate electricity from its solar panels.
As 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon pointed out, the plane's economies of weight also make the cockpit very confining. The pilot's seat also serves as the aircraft's toilet. Self hypnosis is one of the techniques that pilot Bertrand Piccard, who is also a psychiatrist, plans to use for overcoming claustrophobia and fatigue.
Doctor Piccard has a family history of exploration and discovery. His father, Jacques Piccard, designed a deep dive submarine, Trieste, and submerged seven miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the Mariana Trench on January 23, 1960. His grandfather, Auguste, was a balloonist described by NASA as the first man who ascended into space.
On May 27, 1931, Piccard and Paul Kipfer took off from Augsburg, Germany in a pressurized gondola attached to a balloon, and reached a record altitude of 51,788 feet, from which he and his fellow balloonist were able to see the curvature of the earth.
Traveling around the world in an aircraft powered by the sun seems a promising next step for the Piccard family legacy of exploration.
Tell us your thoughts. Please leave comments below or by email and subscribe to get future updates. There is also expanded coverage of other recent news articles. You may also wish to follow our dispatches as the News Analysis Examiner.