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.

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