Thursday, March 12, 2015

The eagle has landed

It was nearing midnight on 10th of March 2015 at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmadabad, India. A small crowd waited, anxiously looking towards the clear night sky. Exactly after twenty minutes pass eleven in the night, they saw what they were waiting for; a row of fourteen or fifteen blue bright LED lights slowly travelling towards them. There was a murmur of excitement as the big bird slowly landed on the air strip. The big bird was the world's largest solar power operated airplane Solar impulse 2 (Si2). So innovative and challenging is this mission, that I want to describe it in the words originally used by US astronaut Neil Armstrong, when the first man-made craft had landed on the moon, now used to indicate the completion of a mission objective; “the Eagle has landed.” 

Solar impulse 2 is a large plane with a carbon fiber wing with span (72 meters), that is even longer than that of the Boeing Jumbo jet 747-81 (68.5 meters). Yet its cockpit is tiny measuring just 3.8 cubic metres in volume, something that is not much bigger than a public telephone box. The total weight of the plane is only 2.3 tonnes, which well compares with the weight of a family car. It moves forward with the thrust produced by four propellers, each of which is 4 meters long. The propellers are rotated by electric motors fixed underneath the wings.

Solar impulse does not need any fuel as it flies on electric power produced from sunlight by 17000 solar cells fixed on its wings. To facilitate flying during night times or when weather is cloudy, designers have provided it with the energy-dense lithium-ion polymer batteries that provide power during night.

Solar impulse 2 is piloted by Bertrand Piccard and Andre Boschberg, co-pilots and co-founders of this experimental aircraft. They would take turns to fly this single-seater aircraft in a journey around the world, spread over 25 flight days of five months and covering 35,000 km. It will pass over the Arabian Sea, India, Myanmar, China and the Pacific Ocean.

Swiss made Solar Impulse 2 has taken these two promoters 12 years to develop and carry out feasibility tests. Andre Borschberg is a trained engineer and former air-force pilot, he has built a career as an entrepreneur in internet technologies. Bertrand Piccard, who comes from an illustrious family is well known for his ballooning exploits. His father, Jacques Piccard, was the first to reach the deepest place in the ocean in 1960. His grandfather, Auguste Piccard, was the first person to take a balloon into the stratosphere in 1931. Perhaps keeping this in mind, Bertrand completed the first non-stop, circumnavigation of the world in 1999, using the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon. Both the pilots have to fly solo on this mission; taking it in turns. Piccard and Borschberg will be permitted only catnaps of up to 20 mins and will have to stay alert for nearly all of the time they are airborne.

The solar powered plane began its world tour from the Al-Bateen airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Monday 9th March after taking off at 7.12 AM local time and touched down at Muscat, the capital of Oman about 12 hours later with a trouble free flight. It took off from Muscat International Airport in Oman at 06.35 AM local time on Tuesday, 10th March and headed for Ahmedabad in India and landed there at 11.24 PM on same day, covering a distance of 1,465 km in 16 hours and flying over Pakistan airspace for six hours. The plane will leave for Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state of India after about 4 days stop over in Ahmadabad. From Varanasi, they will fly to Myanmar and from there to China.

Real challenge for this around the world flight would be faced when Solar impulse 2 flies over Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It will take several days and nights of non-stop flying to complete these journeys, because of the slow speed of their prop-driven plane. Operating through darkness will be particularly important when the men have to cross the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Many readers are likely to treat Solar impulse 2 as some kind of publicity stunt. According to the promoters, it is not so. Piccard and Borschberg think that it is an initiative aimed at spreading the importance of renewable energy and clean technologies. The Ahmadabad stay of two days would be used for the pilots to hold meetings with government officials, stakeholders and civil society members. The Aditya Birla Group is the India host for Solar Impulse 2.

Mr. Bertrand Piccard has issued a press release in which he says;

Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers but to carry messages. We want to demonstrate the importance of innovation and pioneering spirit, to encourage people to question their old certitudes and habits. The world needs to implement new ways of improving the quality of life. Clean technologies and renewable forms of energy are part of the solution, as they can simultaneously protect the environment and create jobs and profits for the industry,”

Andre Borschberg, co-founder and chief executive of the Solar Impulse project says; “This project is a human project, it is a human challenge,”

Let us all wish the duo, happy and successful flight in their endeavour.

12th March 2015

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