Solar Plane Team Sets Sights on U.S. Flight

Greeting a small group at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg shared details about the next leg of travels for their solar-powered plane, the Solar Impulse. The pair, who were recently featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes, are laying the groundwork for their ultimate goal of completing the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe by plane in 2015.

The Solar Impulse project began several years ago with the goal of building a plane that was not dependent on liquid fuel. The team decided to build its own plane after being told by manufacturers they approached, “What you have in mind is impossible,” said Borschberg.

“The project was about building an aircraft,” said Borschberg of the solar plane’s beginnings, “but it was more about saving energy.”

In May, the Solar Impulse achieved the first solar-powered intercontinental flight, flying from Spain to Morocco in 19 hours (see related pictures: “Solar Plane Completes First Intercontinental Flight“). The first prototype of the plane has about 12,000 photovoltaic cells, and its motors achieve an average power of 6 kilowatts, according to the project’s website.

Now, the team is negotiating permits and support for a flight next year from California (likely San Francisco) to the East Coast, with stops in Washington, D.C. and New York. The U.S. route will go west to east to capitalize on air currents, and the plane will travel at an average speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour).

The plane is not yet ready to cross the ocean from its home in Switzerland, so it will be taken apart and reassembled in the U.S. for the flight. A second plane, with a larger cockpit among other adjustments, is being built for their round-the-world flight.

Why travel across the U.S.? “What is more natural than to come back to the cradle of aviation?” said Piccard, noting that aviation was born in the States when the Wright Brothers made their first flight nearly 110 years ago (the 109th anniversary is Monday) in North Carolina.

But there is a practical reason for the trip as well: funding. Piccard and Borschberg have raised $120 million over the last nine years, but that won’t get them to 2015. Describing their budget in apt terms for a pilot, Piccard said, “When we started, we had one year of visibility, and now, we still have one year of visibility. We get used to it.”

The Solar Impulse is owned by the Belgian chemical company Solvay, has a Swiss engine, modified lithium-ion batteries from Korea, and American solar panels from Sunpower. But the Solar Impulse partners say there is still plenty of opportunity for partners and suppliers on the software and technology side, making the U.S. an appealing trawling ground.

Piccard and Borschberg want to complete their 2015 round-the-world flight in 20 days, taking shifts of up to five days and five nights each.  So far, they are viewing Solar Impulse as a beacon for innovation and inspiration among young people and as a testing ground for technology that may or may not end up being applied in aviation. “All of these technologies have, in some way, a future.” Piccard said. In terms of whether we will ever see a solar-powered commercial airliner, he said, “It would be crazy for me to say yes, and stupid to say no,” noting how quickly aviation has moved from that first Wright Brothers flight in 1903 to its then-unimaginable incarnation today.

For now, Piccard and Borschberg are focused on getting to their 2015 goal, and the prospect of some very long shifts in the cockpit to come. “We know how to manage the energy of the airplane,” Borschberg said. “We now have to manage our own energy.”