Solar Airplane to Take Flight in 2012

Bertrand Piccard, president and pilot at SolarImpulse, will try to fly nonstop around the world on an airplanepowered by solar energy and batteries in 2012 or 2013 to demonstrate tothe world that there, potentially, could be a new way to fly, he toldan audience at the World Future Energy Summit taking place in Abu Dhabithis week.

Piccard and his partner, AndreBorschberg, have run a number of computerized simulations on how aplane of this sort should behave in various circumstances and havebuilt a slightly scaled-down version of the plane. It works. Later thisyear, they will try to take the plane up to 27,000 feet and fly it atnight.

After that, the two will build a second version of the plane and attempt a transatlantic crossing .

“That should show we can fly it during the day andnight,” he said. “It is a demonstration of what we can achieve and asymbol of the pioneering spirit. The adventure of the 21st Century is to save energy.”

If all goes well, a solopilot will then take the larger version of the plane on the worldvoyage. The project has been underway so far for seven years.

The final version of the plane will be the size ofa assenger jet but have the build of a bike. It will have a 64 meterwingspan, a breadth which rivals the jets produced by Airbus, but itwill only weigh 1.6 tons, or about the same as a compact car. Putanother way, the plane will carry about eight kilograms per squaremeter, compared to thousands of kilos per square meter of aconventional jet, he said.

“For every twenty kilos, you need one more meter of wingspan,” Piccard said.

The plane will be powered by four motors, whichwill turn propellers, and solar panels mounted on top of the wings. Thesolar panels have to be large enough to propel the plane during thedaytime and charge the lithium ion batteries during the day so theplane can fly at night. The designers could put a gas generator on theplane to charge the batteries at night, a la Chevy Volt, but Piccardsays that the extra weight of the gas generator would be better used byputting more batteries on the plane.

The full-fledged plane will hold a 160 kilogrampayload, enough for a passenger, a parachute, a life raft, water, food,and oxygen.

So what will pilots of the plane eat? On the shortflights and across the Atlantic, the solo pilot will avoid fiber, toforestall the need to go to the bathroom. On the circumnavigation,high-energy food, “like dry pasta” will be on the menu.

To sleep, pillots engage in self-hypnosis andenter into a sleep-like state for 20 minutes every four hours. (Piccardis actually a famed advocate of self-hypnosis. In 1999, He became thefirst person to circle the Earth in a balloon.)

The plane is not an easy one to fly. It has asignificant amount of inertia, which means that a shift of the joystickdoes not cause an immediate reaction on the direction of the plane.It’s more like driving a sailboat: pilots have to shift the controls,wait, and let the plane shift on its own.

“Good pilots crash on the simulation,” he said.

Why do it? The public thought Lindbergh crazy, but a short time after that passenger planes were all in vogue.



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