The Solar Impulse 2 airplane has completed a successful test flight over Switzerland, keeping the solar-powered aircraft on track for its landmark around-the-world flight in 2015.
Unveiled in April 2014, Solar Impulse 2 is an upgrade over its predecessor. The new aircraft sports larger wings and improved batteries, both of which are designed to allow the plane to circumnavigate the globe without using a drop of fuel.
“What we have now is the first airplane in the world which has unlimited endurance,” project co-founder Andre Borschberg told CNN. “It can flight a day and a night, it can fly a week, it can fly a month – theoretically, it can fly a year. It’s the most energy-efficient plane ever built.”
Commercial airlines are seeking alternative sources of energy as prices for aviation fuel continue to rise. Globally, the airline industry spent an estimated $210 billion on fuel in 2013, representing nearly one-third of operating expenses. Just a decade earlier, airlines’ annual fuel bill was $44 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The Solar Impulse team is led by Borschberg, a pilot and engineer, and Bertrand Piccard, an explorer who made the first nonstop trip around the world in a hot air balloon. Their latest creation is made of carbon fiber, has a wingspan of 236 feet (about 40 feet longer than Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner) and weighs about as much as an average-size car.
The wings are covered with about 17,000 solar cells, which capture energy and send it to four electric motors. According to the project website, the motors are capable of storing enough energy during the day to keep the plane aloft at night. The aircraft also is equipped with auto-pilot, a toilet and a cockpit large enough for the pilot to lie down.
“So we have a sustainable airplane in terms of energy,” Borschberg told the Associated Press. “We need to develop a sustainable pilot now.”
The around-the-world flight is scheduled to take place between March and July 2015, with a projected route that heads east to west over the Northern Hemisphere.
Stops are planned in India, Myanmar, China, the United States and Europe or Africa so that Borschberg and Piccard can alternate piloting the plane. The journey will take the men more than 22,000 miles and keep them aloft for about 500 total hours, according to the website. The trip is expected to be completed in 10 legs, some of them lasting as long as five consecutive days and nights.
The Solar Impulse project is the result of 12 years of planning and research with the goal of demonstrating the potential of alternative energy sources. Solar Impulse 1, unveiled in 2009, was created to test the feasibility of the endeavor by attempting a shorter solar-powered day and night flight. The prototype completed a 26-hour flight in 2010, setting seven world records.