Solar plane pilots eye globe, pitch Japan stop

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo

Two Swiss pilots wowed a New York audience recently as they described their first cross-country flight and 2015 vision of circling the globe — with a possible stopover in Japan — on nothing but energy from the sun.

Fresh off their successful two-month, 5,650-km journey across the United States, Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard touted the potential of a renewable energy source that could revolutionize the world.

A greater shift to alternative energy could especially benefit resource-poor and energy-dependent countries such as Japan and Switzerland.

“The message is around energy efficiency (and) technologies, which allow us to be much more efficient,” Borschberg told Kyodo News at a John F. Kennedy International Airport hangar, where his plane, the 1,600-kg Solar Impulse, was displayed.

The plane’s fuselage uses carbon-fiber composites that can be mass-produced for rotor blades to generate wind power.

Nearly 12,000 solar cells cover the plane. They have a width of just 135 microns — the size of a human hair — and have potential applications far beyond aviation.

The former Swiss Air Force pilot also pointed to how such technologies could be used for buildings, household appliances and transportation.

“If we do this, that’s energy we don’t have to buy abroad, because we do buy our fuel and our gas abroad, like Japan does,” he said.

The March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which wrecked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, profoundly impacted the way the Japanese are thinking about energy. The disaster also prompted leaders to look at alternatives to atomic power.

While the reality of solar planes replacing commercial ones is a long way off, the pair are determined to realize their next goal in two years.

As part of that groundbreaking journey, they hope a stopover in Japan is possible. It would be a “logical” launching point for the long haul over the Pacific before reaching the U.S.

During the circumnavigation each pilot is to fly for 4-5 days. On the American trip, the pair took turns in the one-man cockpit for up to 22 hours at a stretch after taking off from San Francisco on May 3.

“I believe that Japan is a very innovative country for a lot of electric and electronic technologies, and I believe it would make sense to stop in Japan, if and only if, we have a Japanese partner,” Piccard said.

“The project can be interesting to any company that shares the same goals and values,” added Borschberg, who wants to revisit the country where he worked decades ago.

Currently, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Swiss unit is a local sponsor for their project.

Piccard believes that beyond the challenges both countries share, the world should break its dependence on conventional energy sources, which he says benefit providers rather than consumers.

“The world will move forward with win-win not win-lose and until now energy is win-lose, not win-win,” he said. “Solar Impulse is a platform to be able to speak about that.”

Landing in New York late on July 6 was not without suspense, as Borschberg battled a wing problem on the last leg from Washington, D.C.

The seven-city tour has allowed the duo to share their message with the thousands of students, educators, scientists, business leaders and politicians.

“With a solar-powered plane there is credibility, there is a story, there is an adventure and now it is credible and we can speak about it with a track record,” Piccard said.

“So this airplane is important for that (credibility) because we have to make protection of the environment and energy exciting and profitable. Up to now, it was boring and expensive.”

Having gained fame in 1999 for making the first nonstop round-the-world balloon flight, as well as being a pioneering ultralight flyer, the psychiatrist, aeronaut and lecturer has aspired to “think outside the box,” pushing the limits of the imagination.

Growing up in a family of scientists — his grandfather put the first balloon into the stratosphere, while his father went to the depths of the Mariana Trench in a bathyscaph — has prompted the adventurer to go further in other ways.

“When you want to be a pioneer, you have to face a lot of adversity, you have to face a lot of opposition, and a lot of people are going to tell you it is not useful, it is not possible, so if a lot of people tell you it is impossible, it is doable,” Piccard told an audience of some 600 people.

They had gathered at the Swiss Consulate General-sponsored event to view the light plane with a wingspan of a jumbo jet and to interact with the pair, who were mobbed like rock stars.

“I think it is amazing, it is a milestone, it gives us inspiration to do more in terms of renewable energy and that anything is possible,” said Sarah Baki, a Swiss biochemical engineer.

Starting the Solar Impulse project along with Borschberg meant utilizing technology in unimaginable ways and breaking new ground.

After the first flight in 2009, records were made in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as the plane made its first night flight, its first international flight and its first intercontinental flight.

On the 2013 trip, weather posed the greatest challenge, such as when a tornado tore off the roof of a hangar in St. Louis days before landing there and when winds made a Dallas touchdown difficult.

“If you want to be really successful and more than that if you want to be really useful for others, you will need to go beyond knowledge, you will need to go into exploration, innovation and pioneering spirit,” Piccard said.