Solar-powered plane begins round-the-world trip

9 Mar 2015

The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft takes off during testing in Abu Dhabi. Image via Solar Impulse

After 13 years of preparation, the solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse 2 began its round-the-world journey from Abu Dhabi to highlight the many uses of solar energy.

Solar Impulse 2 was officially unveiled in April last year and impressed those in attendance with its size. The plane has a wingspan greater than a Boeing 747 at 236 feet, all of which is covered with 17,248 solar panels to power its four propeller engines. In terms of weight, the plane is not much heavier than a standard car, at 2.3 tonnes.

At 04.12 UTC this morning, Solar Impulse 2 and its pilot André Borshberg took off from Abu Dhabi’s Al-Bateen airport for the first leg of the journey, which will take him to the neighbouring country of Oman, specifically its capital, Muscat.

Of course, as a totally solar-powered plane, it will not reach blistering speeds, but will rather cruise at a leisurely average speed of just 70km/h. At time of writing, the plane is making its approach towards the Omani capital, where Borshberg will be met by his co-pilot Bertrand Piccard.

Because of the limitations of the plane, both pilots will need to alternate each leg as there is only space for one pilot in the small cabin. Both pilots are undergoing hypnosis training to help them feel refreshed after sleeps of just 20 minutes.

Following its stop in Muscat, Solar Impulse 2 will take off again, stopping in another 12 locations as it makes its way across Asia, the Pacific Ocean, the US, the Atlantic Ocean and southern Europe before returning to Abu Dhabi, all of which is expected to take around 25 days.

The longest leg of the journey will see the craft span 8,500km as it flies over the vast Pacific Ocean from Nanjing, China, to Hawaii.

Speaking of the mission, Piccard, who is also chairman of the Solar Impulse project, said it gives an important message for the potential of a sustainable future.

“We want to share our vision of a clean future,” he said.

“Climate change is a fantastic opportunity to bring in the market new green technologies that save energy, save natural resources of our planet, make profit, create jobs, and sustain growth.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic