Boeing's solar-powered airplane looks ridiculous, but it might just be crazy enough to work

The first solar-powered airplane completed an intercontinental flight four years ago last week. NASA’s Pathfinder made headlines with its pilotless, sustained flights in 2014. Just two months ago, a solar plane made history after it traversed the Pacific Ocean. It may be a slow and steady progression, but the solar-powered airplane race is heating up.

Now, Boeing wants to get into the mix. The aerospace giant just filed a patent for a “Solar Powered Airplane,” that borrows aspects from NASA’s design while innovating to overcome some of the Pathfinder’s failures.

Boeing’s plane sports nine propellers along it’s staple-shaped frame, which is essentially one giant wing with upturned edges. There’s no cockpit and no pilot on board. Instead, the plane is controlled remotely from the ground.

Like the Pathfinder, Boeing’s plane is designed with solar panels on its upper side to soak up and store energy for unusually long flights. But the Pathfinder’s relatively flat design made it difficult to absorb sunlight that came in at low angles. To overcome this challenge, Boeing has designed large winglets at each end of the main wing, which should allow the plane to maintain a stable flight path and high altitude, while absorbing sunlight even when the Sun is low on the horizon. If the design works as Boeing has planned, the plane may be able to collect and store enough energy during the day to sustain flight at night. It may never need to land.

This perpetual, stable, high-altitude flight would enable the plane to serve as a communication system, relaying signals long distances across the globe. Satellites currently serve this function and Boeing builds plenty of satellites. The company’s new patent is likely an attempt to diversify their business and stake claim to the burgeoning solar plane market.

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