One lightweight airplane is proving that big things really do come in small packages.
On Wednesday, Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg unveiled a plane that is set to become the first to fly around the world using only solar and battery power. The team hopes to make the trip with its Solar Impulse 2 plane for five consecutive days in March 2015, using only electricity generated from the sun hitting the photovoltaic panel across its wing.
The solar power generated during the day will be stored in 2077-pound batteries to power the Solar Impulse 2’s night flight. The batteries make up most of the plane’s weight, which is about about 5,000 lbs, or about the same as a car.
The Solar Impulse 2 also carries only one passenger, and that passenger can’t weight more than a certain amount. Even the amount of food on board the plane needs to be carefully weighed, as not to exhaust the batteries, according to the Solar Impulse website.
The Solar Impulse 2 is also comparatively much slower than other planes, and even some cars. The aircraft’s maximum speed is 87 miles per hour, meaning it will have to stay in the air for several days in a row during long transoceanic legs. Night-time flight is also slower that daytime flight, a way to conserve power. In case of an emergency, the pilot seat has an integrated parachute and life raft.
The number of caveats makes the solar-powered aircraft nowhere near ready for commercial use. But Piccard says Solar Impulse is just as much about “changing mindsets” as it is introducing new technologies.
“What we really wanted to demonstrate is how many incredible things we can make with renewable energies, with clean technologies,” he said. “Because so often we believe that clean technologies is a limit, for comfort, for mobility, for prosperity. And it’s the opposite.”
Theoretically, the plane would be able to stay airborne indefinitely if it weren’t for the human need for food, water, and sleep, Piccard and Borschberg said at the unveiling.
Piccard and Borschberg founded the Solar Impulse project more than a decade ago, and have already experienced success with their first prototype, the Solar Impulse 1. In July 2013, that plane made history by flying across the United States.