On July 25th, 2016 Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg achieved what many thought was impossible. The co-pilot's project, Solar Impulse 2, completed a flight across the globe–more than 27,000-miles without the use of a single drop of fuel. The fulfillment of Solar Impulse 2's mission has been the culmination of a 13-year long journey that is being heralded as a milestone in the future of clean energy.
The accomplishments of Piccard, Borschberg, and the Solar Impulse team represent not only a technological triumph–showing that clean, renewable energy sources can be utilized in any sector–but that human ingenuity can quite literally change the world.
Watch Bertrand Piccard and the Solar Impulse team discuss the motivations behind the groundbreaking flight.
Piccard's record-breaking flight around the world in a balloon spurred his interest in sustainable energy enabled flight when he noticed how much fuel he was utilizing to complete his mission. This realization spurred years of research for what would one day become the Solar Impulse project.
In 2004, Piccard, along with pilot André Borschberg, began working on their first fuel-less aircraft prototype, embarking on the maiden voyage of Solar Impulse in April of 2010 with an impressive 26-hour flight. Subsequent multi-stage flights, such as the one that crossed the US in 2013, showed that the technology was capable of accomplishing much more.
The second iteration of the aircraft, known as Solar Impulse 2, was completed in 2014. This revised version of the aircraft featured considerable improvements including more solar cells, more powerful motors, and countless energy and weight optimizations which gave Piccard and Borschberg the confidence for a round-the-world voyage.
Solar Impulse 2 began its journey in March of 2015. A little over a year later it successfully landed in Abu Dhabi where the journey began, accruing an incredible amount of accolades and breaking records throughout the historic flight.
The success of Solar Impulse has instilled confidence in solar technology for flight, so much so that Piccard predicts that "before 10 years' time, we will have short-haul electric airplanes for 50 people," adding that it could be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the transportation industry.
Never ones to rest on their laurels, Piccard, Borschberg, and the Solar Impulse team are already looking to their next project–the development of unmanned, high altitude, solar-powered aircraft that will aid in communications, imaging, and other applications that are traditionally enabled through the use of satellites.
While Solar Impulse 2 is not a commercially viable model at this stage–slowly transporting two men in a cramped, unpressurized cabin without the comforts found elsewhere in modern aviation–it serves as a tremendous case study for what is possible when human perseverance converges with technological innovation.