It may be some time before passengers are lining up to board a solar-powered plane at JFK for a flight to London, but to be fair to Bertrand Piccard and his team, their remarkable aviation project has never been about revolutionizing air transport.
Earlier this week, the Swiss pilot made history when he completed the first ever intercontinental flight in an aircraft powered only by the sun’s energy.
The main idea behind the 19-hour flight was to highlight the potential of renewable energies and the importance of clean technologies.
During the flight, Piccard’s single-seat plane — Solar Impulse — flew at an average speed of around 44 mph at a height of 27,000 feet, using energy from 12,000 solar cells to power its four electrical motors. On-board batteries stored energy from the sun in the day to help power it through the night.
At 80 meters, the plane’s wingspan is slightly wider than that of the world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380. It is, however, remarkably light, weighing little more than a family car.
Speaking to BBC radio’s Giles Dilnot about his experience, pilot Piccard said the highlight of the journey was passing over the Strait of Gibraltar, the water that separates Europe from Africa.
“It was very symbolic and I knew that on the other side the Moroccans were waiting for us with so much enthusiasm,” Piccard said. “There was a lot of emotion.”
The purpose of the record breaking trip, from Madrid in Spain to Rabat in Morocco, was, in Piccard’s words, “to make a revolution in the mindset of the people when they think about energy issues.”
He told Dilnot, “Solar Impulse is really a pioneering adventure. We open new doors. We are not an industry that’s planning to put solar airplanes on the market.”
He continued, “We want to demonstrate how sexy and exciting the new technology can be that can protect the environment and reduce the dependency on fossil energy. We can say ‘even if this airplane is not transporting any passengers, all these technologies can be implemented in daily life, for cars, or for heating systems or for the construction of houses.’ All the technology exists, we should use it much more in our daily life.”
Piccard and his team plan to introduce Solar Impulse and its accompanying philosophy to as many people as possible with a series of flights around the world planned for 2013.