Solar Plane Planned for Around-the-World Flight

April 7, 2005

Attempting aeronautical firsts is nothing new for Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard.

Coming from a family of explorers, he made history in March 1999 with a nonstop, around-the-world flight in a hot-air balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3. Now Piccard has set his sights on another ambitious adventure: an around-the-world flight in a solar-powered airplane, the Solar Impulse.

The adventurer said his broader goal is to show the importance of "high technologies in sustainable development."

Piccard hopes his solar plane will be completely self-sustaining and capable of flying continuously, even at night, at altitudes up to 32,800 feet (10,000 meters).

The first test flight is set for 2007. The long-distance flights are scheduled to begin in 2009.

While any potential takeoff is still years away, the effort is already pushing Piccard and his 50-person team to develop an aircraft with state-of-the-art technology. Piccard plans to unveil their design in two months.

"The aircraft must be very rigid and will most likely be built with advanced carbon materials," Piccard said from Lausanne, Switzerland, during a recent telephone interview. "It will need to be very light and use very little energy at night. Energy storage is the biggest challenge for solar flight."

As with the Breitling Orbiter 3, Piccard will rely on a team of sponsors and engineers to assist him in developing the plane. The Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) has signed on as the project's official scientific advisor. Other partners include the European Space Agency and Dassault Aviation—makers of the Falcon range of private jets.

"It's a huge project," Piccard conceded. "The plane will have an 80-meter (262-foot) wingspan, which is larger than any commercial aircraft."

Piccard estimates that enough power can be generated to sustain a flight of roughly 60 miles an hour (97 kilometers an hour). The batteries used to fly the plane at night must be incredibly dense, capable of storing 200 watts per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

Nearly the entire body of the plane will be covered by 287 square yards (240 square meters) of solar panels.

"This type of flight would not have been possible 15 years ago," Piccard said, referring to the new technologies, especially new-generation batteries, that are now available.

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