Balloonists Begin Preparing for Solar Impulse Project

January 04, 2004 by Jeff Shepard

Record-breaking aviators Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard hope to harness the sun's power to fly round the world in a solar-powered aeroplane, which will have to use batteries to fly at night (something never before achieved in a solar-powered craft). A feasibility study has confirmed the viability of the Solar Impulse project, and experts are now preparing to design the craft for launch sometime in 2006.

Shaped like a glider, the plane will be black and covered in blue photovoltaic cells. Sixty-metre wings and two tail-mounted engines will enable it to take off unassisted and carry the heavy batteries needed to store energy for night flying. The plane will be very light, with a wingspan of around 60 meters (197 feet) and will fly at about the height of a commercial airliner. Jones and Piccard are consulting the world's best glider and yacht manufacturers to help them source state-of-the-art composite materials. Meanwhile, robotics experts at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, are assessing the idea of making the craft interactive with the pilot.

"The design incorporates a computerized body vest," explained Jones. "If there's stress on part of the wing, the pilot would feel pressure on one side of his body. Equally, if the pilot is stressed the plane would sense this and only feed him must-know information. We want to use it as a communications platform for the concept of sustainable development and renewable energy resources."

Prototype flights are planned for 2006, and ultra-long-distance flights are planned for 2009. The aeroplane will not carry any fossil fuels on board, and so will offer completely pollution-free transport.