Record Solar Power Flight Attempt Unveiled

A team of aviators and scientists led by Dr. Bertrand Piccard, the first man together with Brian Jones to circle the earth non-stop in a balloon in 1999, announced plans to develop an aircraft powered by the sun and capable of circling the earth.

Lausanne, Switzerland – December 9, 2003 [] The Piccard team envisions being able to spend full nights in the air by 2007. Piccard will be assisted by Jones, his co-pilot in their Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon, and Andre Borschberg, engineer and jet plane pilot. Their new project, dubbed Solar Impulse, is aimed at demonstrating the role of high technology in sustainable development. The EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne/Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) is the official scientific advisor to the project. The EPFL conducted thermodynamic research in support of the Piccard/Jones 1999 balloon flight, and is the official scientific advisor to Alinghi, current holder of yacht racing’s prestigious America’s Cup. Drawing attention to the need for further sustainable development is one of the project’s key goals. “To be able to build and fly an aircraft that uses no fossil fuels and emits no pollutants is a powerful symbol for today’s ecology,” Piccard said. “We envision that Solar Impulse will serve as a communication platform to promote sustainable development and demonstrate the fundamental role of high technology in the protection of the environment.” The scientific research for Solar Impulse will be conducted on the EPFL campus. The school’s vice president for research, Stefan Catsicas said, “Our work will give birth to a real flying laboratory.” The Solar Impulse aircraft will have an extremely long wingspan, advanced aerodynamics, and a revolutionary structure in order to capture and store sufficient solar energy during the day and to be able to maintain itself in flight during the night. An EPFL team of some 30 experts from several departments began a feasibility study in March as the preliminary step in planning for broad project directions. The EPFL research in the project will involve scientists, engineers, and doctoral students in the areas of mechanics, thermodynamics, robotics, aerodynamics, electrical systems, composite materials, photovoltaic systems, energy storage and transfer, and computer modeling. Piccard’s plans call for the design and construction of a first prototype aircraft in 2004- 2005, followed by initial test flights in 2006. The next step will involve a flight of at least 36 hours, including one full night, in 2007. From then on, flights of increasingly long duration are planned. As the fundamental objective is to use solar-generated power, one of the project’s greatest challenges will be to store sufficient solar power during the day to operate the plane throughout the night. “The academic and scientific work should result in the integration of new technologies,” Piccard said. “Parallel to this, we wish to have the participation of one to several sponsors interested in financing the aircraft construction, the test flights, and the several stages of the mission. We want to have the enthusiasm and special skills of our sponsor partners to help us in re-writing the old pages of aviation history. A century after the Wright brothers’ first flight, we look forward to adding new pages on solar aviation. Those on the project know it will be a tremendous technical challenge. “As the sun will be our direct source of energy, the conversion of radiant energy to electrical and then to mechanical energy must be done with minimum loss.” said Professor Yves Perriard, head of the EPFL Integrated Actuators Lab and one of the lead scientists in the feasibility study. “A major challenge will be to optimize the overall system, which will be composed of many sub-systems with well over 100 parameters operating under multiple constraints.” Professor Dario Floreano of the EPFL’s Autonomous Systems Lab will direct the development of new flying aids for the pilot. An adaptive pilot assistant will take all the data available about the state of the aircraft and the progress of the flight, process it, integrate it, and present it to the pilot in a compact form. It will include both suggestions and warnings, according to Floreano. Another feature will be “a wearable device that supports “symbiotic communication” between the bodies of the pilot and the aircraft. Piccard described Solar Impulse as a project to open new human, scientific, ecological, and economic horizons. “We hope to stimulate scientific research in new fields that involve aerodynamics, composite materials, and methods of producing and storing energy,” Piccard said. “We want to mobilize public interest around a concrete project that advances the popular understanding of sustainable development and renewable resources. We hope to change the mentality of those who too often ignore the difficult questions of our future energy needs.” As an official Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, Piccard noted that his project embodies the core spirit of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals program. Sustainable development is seen as the ability of present generations to meet their needs without compromising the possibility of future generations to meet theirs.


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