The Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse

Bertrand Piccard is a Swiss psychiatrist and explorer who grew up in a family that regularly tested the limits of human exploration. His father and grandfather were pioneers of their time in expeditions through the air and ocean. He watched and reveled as his grandfather set world records for air travel in gas balloons and his father achieved feats of grand proportions in submarine exploration. In 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones took to the air in pursuit of the first non-stop, round-the-world trip via hot air balloon. On March 1 of 1999, the two embarked on an incredible 20-day journey that began in Switzerland and landed them in Egypt.

In reflecting on this accomplishment, Piccard began to wonder if the same sort of journey could be made sans the use of fuel and polluting emissions. Thus sparked the origins for the idea that became Solar Impulse.

Solar Impulse is a Swiss, long-range solar powered aircraft project. A single seated monoplane has been designed with solar panels that line its gigantic wingspan. The initial research for the project began in 2003. André Borschberg, co-founder of Solar Impulse, was asked by the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) to lead the feasibility study. By 2009 he had developed a multi-national and multi-disciplinary team in pursuit of circumnavigating the world through use of solar energy alone.

Researchers and engineers have dreamt and designed what was the seemingly impossible: a highly aerodynamic aircraft that can fly through the night on stored solar energy. On July 7-8, 2010, the Solar Impulse project took to the sky as the HB-SIA aircraft embarked on its historical day and night flight, which lasted for 26 hours and 10 minutes, reaching an altitude of 30,300 feet. The Solar Impulse project extends far beyond the mastering of aviation design and technology. It inspires a “pioneering spirit” amongst the young and curious.

To that end, the project has launched educational programs that encourage the world to actively seek energy and environmental conservation solutions.

“Our ambition with Solar Impulse is for the worlds of exploration and innovation to make a contribution to the cause of renewable energies. We want to show the importance of new technologies for sustainable development, and of course to place dreams and emotions back where they belong—right at the heart of scientific adventure.” –Bertrand Piccard

The aircraft spent this summer making a cross-country journey across America, from San Francisco to New York City. The HB-SIA flew through the day and night with 4 stops along the way, in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Washington D.C., making its final descent into New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on July 6 this summer.

In the year 2013, The Solar Impulse project is developing a second airplane, the HB-SIB, which will expand off of the first prototype. By 2015, the project plans to have its second aircraft constructed and ready for its round-the-world, solar energy fueled flight. For updates on the progress of this revolutionary venture, or opportunities to support the project directly, you can visit the website at

Note: This article is displaying as it appeared in Volume 12 of our PlaneSense: Informational Quarterly newsletter.
Photo courtesy of solarimpulse (flickr)

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