Flying around the world on solar power

Did you miss it? I missed it. And I really wanted to catch it. Earlier this month — while I was paying attention to gosh knows what — the Solar Impulse team unveiled the first solar-powered aircraft capable of flying around the world. It’s called Solar Impulse 2, and it will embark on its round-the-world tour in March 2015.

The Solar Impulse team thinks big, but they also think smart. For instance, they didn't try to build a globe-circling solar plane right off the bat. Instead, they took a stepwise approach and built a plane that could fly shorter hops — across a continent, for example. The lessons learned from building and flying that first plane, which successfully crossed Europe, Africa, and the US, helped the team develop Solar Impulse 2.

Not surprisingly, Solar Impulse 2 is larger than its predecessor. The wingspan has grown from about 64 meters to 72 meters, the weight from about 1600 kilos to 2300 kilos, and the number of voltaic cells from about 12000 to 17000. That’s a lot of batteries.

Mind you, the numbers tell only part of the story. The Solar Impulse 2 project also required the development of innovative materials and construction methods, including new electrolytes to boost the energy density of the voltaic cells.

This story isn’t just about technology. It’s also about human skill and endurance. For instance, to cross the Atlantic or Pacific ocean, the plane, which has a top speed of 90 km/h, will need to stay airborne for about 5 or 6 days. And that means the pilot will have to sit in an unheated, unpressurized cockpit for more than 120 hours in temperatures that could range from -40°C to +40°C. These guys aren’t just smart; they’re tough to boot.

Did I mention? QNX Software Systems is the official realtime OS partner for the Solar Impulse team, and the plane uses the QNX OS for several control and data communication functions. Which is, well, cool.

The plane is scheduled to launch in about 310 days. And this time, I’ll be paying attention. By the way, here's the part that I missed:

See previous posts on the Solar Impulse project.


Japan's high-tech innovations take on natural disasters

Guest post by my inimitable colleague Noko Kataoka.

Noko Kataoka
When I’m talking to my family in Japan, the conversation often turns to the weather. Not because we have nothing else to talk about, but because the weather is such a serious subject in their region. They experience heavy rainstorms in early summer (followed by scorching heat that lasts for over two months), ferocious typhoons in the fall, and blizzards in the winter that can drop up to 50 cm of snow overnight. Every time I hear a severe weather report I need to call my family and make sure they’re okay.

And, of course, Japan is known for its earthquakes. The country is still working to recover from the “311” (March 11, 2011) disaster, one of the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in history, which killed more than 18,000 people. The country has had to put a lot of thought into how more lives could be saved when Mother Nature chooses to strike again.

Logo of the
Saigai Taisaku Expo
The good news is, Japanese people are very good at advancing technology to address their unique environment. Government agencies and businesses work together on innovative ways to respond to environmental challenges. The country even has tradeshows dedicated to technologies for coping with natural disasters. For instance, the Saigai Taisaku Expo (Disaster Response Expo) showcased many ingenious solutions this year — from highly sophisticated portable toilets for evacuation camps to smartphone apps for earthquake warnings. Here are some solutions that I found interesting:

  • An unmanned airplane for establishing radio communications in isolated communities that have suffered infrastructure damage.
  • A helmet loaded with a head-lamp, radio, earthquake sensor, and wireless communications unit. The helmet not only protects you from physical shocks but also sends emergency messages for safety confirmation, evacuation guidance, and more.
  • An earthquake estimator that uses earthquake forecast information issued by the Japan meteorological agency to estimate the magnitude of an imminent quake and how long before the shock hits. It can be integrated with public broadcasting systems or digital signage to guide people to safety.
  • A smartphone navigation app especially designed for natural disaster situations. Using information from GPS and camera, the app displays directions for designated evacuation areas.
  • An unmanned 3D radar system for estimating damage to buildings. Okay, your building is still standing after a big earthquake — but how do you know if it’s safe to go in?
  • A public information system that consolidates and manages big data collected by the crisis management information center. In the state of emergency, people can access to emergency-response information they need from their mobile devices.
It is particularly interesting to see how new innovations are made possible by technologies such as smartphones and cloud connectivity. We have little immediate influence on how Mother Nature behaves, but people can engineer solutions to help survive natural disasters. And with global climate change causing unexpected weather across the planet, Japan’s innovations in connected systems for environmental challenges may prove useful in other parts of the world, too.