Spotlight: Solar Impulse Round-the-World Flight

(Images via Google Images)

It was in 1998, during his second attempt at circumnavigating the globe non-stop on a balloon, that balloonist and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard got a taste of India up close. The Breitling Orbiter 2 that he was aboard couldn’t keep up with the high winds and was flying too close to land. The balloon that finally gave up on Piccard and his partner Brian Jones in a paddy field in Myanmar had also crossed India. “I flew just about 300m above India,” said Piccard to THE WEEK. “We were so close that I heard children screaming and could smell the great food that was being made in the kitchens here.” Piccard had then made up his mind to visit “this exotic land” and he is a man of determination.

(From left) Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones
(From left) Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones

Not only did he become the first to circumnavigate the globe on a balloon the very next year, he is now flying the Solar Impulse 2, a zero-fuel plane that runs completely on solar energy, around the globe with his co-pilot and partner Andre Borschberg, and has landed the same in India. “We are proud to have put India on our sleeve,” says an elated Piccard, pointing at the orange badge saying Solar Impulse India on the sleeve of his uniform.The plane, which landed in Ahmedabad at 11:30 pm on March 10, is an engineering marvel in itself. Powered by the 17, 248 solar cells that line the top of its wings, Solar Impulse 2 is the first solar plane to have attempted the adventure of circumnavigating the world. Standing majestically in a specialised hangar at the Sardar Vallabhai Patel International Airport, Ahmedabad, the Si2 kicked off its historic journey from Abu Dhabi on March 9. It has successfully completed two legs, having braved some furious sandstorms and crossed the Arabian ocean on its way. It is now being readied for the third of the 12 legs of the mission, after which it will land in Varanasi.It all started with one man’s crazy dream. Hailing from a family of explorers, Piccard, 56, seems to have inherited pioneering spirit through his genes. Considering that his father Auguste Piccard was a balloonist and his father Jacques Piccard an undersea explorer, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Si2 project is Piccard’s brainchild. But it takes more than just a dream to create history. When he approached the aircraft building industry with his idea, he was laughed at. “They either said they were not interested in the project or they told me to back off it as it was impossible,” he says, while speaking to THE WEEK at a felicitation programme organised by one of the sponsors Aditya Birla Group. “Ofcourse, it is a difficult task. If it was easy, then everyone would be doing it! That does not mean it is impossible.” The explorer in Piccard  told himself to steer clear of such naysayers and he set out in search of more optimistic partners who connected with his out-of-the-box idea and would be ready to help him with funding and technology.

This led him to approach the Swiss federal institute of technology, Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL), in 2004, which was immediately taken by the idea. That was where Broschberg, an engineer by profession and pilot by choice, who then went on to become the CEO of Solar Impulse and a close friend of Piccard, came on board. Five year and several sponsorships later, a prototype of the Si2, was unveiled to the public in 2009. This aeroplane, which was a smaller version of the present craft, was called Solar Impulse 1, and was used for testing the possibilities of flying without fossil fuel. The Si1 completed a record-breaking 26-hour day and night flight in 2010. This instilled in the Swiss pilots the confidence to embark on their dream project, a round-the-world flight on a solar plane.

The project was ambitious and the stakes were high. The greatest challenge the team of over 50 engineers, 100 advisors and 80 technological partners (of the likes of global changemakers like Solvay, Bayer, Omega and ABB) faced was to make the plane as light as possible so as to harness both the energy of the sun as well as the direction of the winds to the maximum. “We realised earlier on in the project that it was no use to go to people with specialised knowledge of aircraft building,” says Broschberg. “They come with a baggage of knowledge and cannot think of a perspective outside of those boundaries.” The fact that ignorance is bliss came to their rescue. They were ready to take any chance, were open to every idea and were not restricted by the knowledge of the scientific feasibility of their experiments. Finally in April 2014, Si2 was presented to the world.

Andre Borschberg in the cockpit
Andre Borschberg in the cockpit

The aircraft, which is now on display at Ahmedabad, has a wingspan of 72m, yet weighs only 2.3 tonnes, which is approximately the weight of a family car like Toyota Innova. The cockpit is just as big as a public telephone booth (3.8cu.m.) and can seat one pilot at a time, doubling up as a reclinable bed and toilet. Powered by the photo-voltaic cells that line its wings during the day, it stores up this energy in the 640 kg lithium-ion batteries to be used for night flight. On its current mission, the Si2 is expected to cover 35,000km, two oceans and four continents, spreading awareness about and promoting clean technologies and renewable energy. After Varanasi, the next halt will be at Myanmar, following which it sets off on the most challenging stretch of this journey–the five-day long flight to cross the Pacific ocean to reach China. The whole trip is expected to take around 25 days, with stops at Hawaii, Arizona, Pheonix, New York and Southern Europe.

The choice of halting locations of the Si2 has come under the scanner, especially in India, where both Ahmedabad and Varanasi, PM Modi’s pet cities, made it to the list leaving behind bigger and more equipped airports like those in Mumbai and Delhi. While interacting with the media, the pilots were quizzed on the reasons behind their choice. “Ahmedabad was a natural choice as Si2 has a bit of the city in it,” reasons Broschberg. Although his arguement that some raw materials used in the plane were manufactured at Solvay’s Ahmedabad facility was convincing, their reason for choosing Modi’s constituency Varanasi remained puzzling. Experts say that geographically the best choice to halt between Ahmedabad and Myanmar would have been Kolkata. “It is not entirely a technical choice,” says Broschberg. “This project is more than just about business and technology, it is also about the betterment of mankind and us as individuals.” Referring to long-duration flights as spiritual experiences, Broschberg justified the choice of Varanasi as an extension of this spiritual dimension.

Si2 is, indeed, much more than just a scientific experiment. It is as much a test of endurance making it a one-of-a-kind human adventure. Flying solo in the tiny unheated and unpressurized cockpit for up to 5 or 6 days and nights in a row is no joke. The pilot can afford to only sleep for 20 minutes in a day. While Piccard resorts to self-hypnosis to keep himself refreshed, Broschberg falls back upon yoga for relaxation. The pilots are also trained by Switzerland-based Indian yoga guru Sanjeev Bhanot to stimulate their organs and adjust their body temperatures during the flight.

For the many technological partners, Si2 is a flying lab for the development of low-cost energy-efficient solutions for future use. Claude Michel, head of the Solar Impulse Partnership at Solvay, which has contributed 15 products and over 6000 components to the aircraft, says that each of these parts will find practical applications in our everyday lives. “The lithium-ion batteries are already being used in the field of mobile phones and tablet PCs,” says Michel. Richard Northcote, chief sustainability officer of Bayer MaterialScience echoes his sentiment about the benefit of creating such an aircraft. “This is a project that allows us to take our products to the bottom rung of the economic pyramid,” says Northcote. “The insulation material used in this plane is the same that is used in low-cost affordable houses in cities like Chennai, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Philippines. Also, the windscreen, which weighs much less than glass, is also currently used in solar dryers by farmers in India.” Swiss watchmaker Omega, too, is an important contributor of life-saving technology aboard the Si2. Apart from the instrument used to indicate flight path and alert the pilots if the angles of the wings exceed a normal limit, Omega has also designed vibrating sleeves to inform pilots of important information and to wake them up from their 20-minute catnaps.

All said, the biggest objective of the mission is to prove that it is possible to harness solar energy and other sources of renewable energy to do the exact same things that fossil fuels do in a more efficient manner. To promote this cause and spread awareness, the pilots will use the halts to attend events and meet as many people as possible. When asked about the commercial possibilities of an aircraft like Si2, Piccard, a man of wit, says: “I am not a fool to say yes, neither am I stupid to say no.” Comparing their feat to that of Wright brothers’ first flight, Northcote says renewable energy like solar is the reality of the future and it would take years of dedicated research to explore the commercial side of this invention.

As Si2 gets ready to leave India, Piccard and Broschberg are busy getting themselves ready for the demanding feat. However, the men are both more than pleased to have set out on this adventure of a lifetime. They also have the whole world following them on their heels via the internet through live streaming from the cockpit of the Si2 and through their regular Twitter updates. “It feels great to have the support of such a large community,” says Piccard. “At the end of the day, we want to inspire change in people. We want to make sure that our children grow up in a world were they can enjoy all what we did. Our mission is not just a message to save resources, it is an attemot to inspire the coming generation to follow their dreams no matter whoever tells them that it is impossible.” The greatest danger in life is not taking risks, he says, but living our life full of certitudes.


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