A man who circled the globe in a balloon in 1999 has a new global adventure planned. Bertrand Piccard has unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered plane he hopes to fly around the world. Until now, only unmanned solar airplanes have been flown, but Piccard’s HB-SIA would be manned. The glider-like plane has solar panels covering the wings, and the wingspan of the prototype reaches 61m, while the entire vehicle weighs only 1,500 kg. The first tests of the plane will be done to prove it can fly at night. Piccard says he wants to demonstrate the potential of renewable energies.
Piccard just unveiled the prototype, and he hopes to attempt a flight across the Atlantic by 2012.
Solar and battery technology is just now maturing enough to enable solar flight. In 2007 the UK defence company Qinetiq flew an unmanned aerial vehicle called the Zephyr unmanned for 54 continuous hours during tests.
But Piccard and his company, Solar Impulse are working on what they believe to be a breakthrough design, using super-efficient solar cells, batteries, motors and propellers to get it through the dark hours and composite materials to keep it extremely light.
Although the vehicle is expected to be capable of flying non-stop around the globe, Piccard will in fact make five long hops, sharing flying duties with project partner Andre Borschberg.
“The aeroplane could do it theoretically non-stop – but not the pilot,” said Piccard told the BBC. “We should fly at roughly 25 knots and that would make it between 20 and 25 days to go around the world, which is too much for a pilot who has to steer the plane. In a balloon you can sleep, because it stays in the air even if you sleep. We believe the maximum for one pilot is five days.”
More info on Solar Impulse.. And just for your interest, here’s an article about the biggest plane in the world.