Solar powered aircraft ‘Solar Impulse 2’ has completed a marathon circumnavigation of the globe this week.
Following the final 48 hour leg of the journey, the aircraft landed in Abu Dhabi, completing a 43,041km round-the-world trip.
Solar Impulse 2 first left Abu Dhabi on the 9th of March last year, before flying east in 17 legs across Asia, the Pacific, America, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and then finally the Middle East.
The aircraft itself is fully solar powered, using a large wing-mounted array to power electric engines and charge battery packs allowing it to fly through the night. It features a larger wingspan than a Boeing 747, however weighs in at just 2.3 tonnes.
Weight restrictions forced the aircraft to have a tiny 3.8 cubic meter cockpit, which was both unheated and unpressurised. Pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg took turns to fly the craft in often gruelling conditions.
“Flying one leg with a completely new type of airplane is difficult enough, but flying around the world is a real challenge. More than a demonstration, it’s the confirmation that these technologies are truly dependable and reliable,” said Pilot André Borschberg.
Over the course of the round-the-world trip, the Solar Impulse team broke an impressive 19 world records, including the longest duration solo airplane flight, lasting 5 days and nights as the aircraft flew from Japan to Hawaii.
The team behind Solar Impulse intended the flight as a way to showcase the potential of renewable power in aviation.
“This is not only a first in the history of aviation; it’s before all a first in the history of energy. I’m sure that within 10 years we’ll see electric airplanes transporting 50 passengers on short to medium haul flights,” said Pilot Bertrand Piccard upon completing the flight.
Growing interest in solar drone aircraft
The Solar Impulse 2 could technically fly almost perpetually, however the inclusion of a human passenger restricted its flight times.
Around the world a number of other companies are working to build unmanned drone aircraft which can fly continuously using solar power.
Among the most interesting of these are Facebook’s Aquila drone and the Airbus’s Zephyr ‘pseudo-satellite’.
Both craft are able to stay in the air for months on end, providing internet connectivity in the case of Aquila and surveillance in the case of Zephyr.