Friday, April 10, 2015

Solar Future of Air Travel
Not a fantasy anymore but a reality. A new page in the solar energy based aviation history was written last month when first time ever a mission for voyaging around the world without fossil fuel was undertaken by two pioneers Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. Their ambitious flight which will continue another three months is to inspire the world of exploration and innovation to contribute to the development of renewable energies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure.

By Bodhi Shri
It was nothing short of a miracle when a plane set out on a journey around the world, covering 35,000 km in five months, without using a drop of petrol or diesel. This has never been tried before. And a few decades ago it was virtually unimaginable. This pioneering mission has not just the element of wonder and doing something bizarre, but there is a very serious issue at the core of the heart. The aviation industry is a big source of pollution. Eight million people fly every day and the number is increasing every passing year. Every hour, our aviation industry spits out into the atmosphere innumerable tonnes of polluting emissions contributing in the climate change. 
          This flight not using a drop of fossil fuel, no matter day or night is definitely has spurred a new interest in developing technologies for better solar planes which could be used for routine air journeys. This plane, the development of which has taken some two decades, can fly with a speed of 36 to 140 km per hour. It could even fly at even 216 km/hour for some time, the fastest ever during its journey from Varanasi to Mandalay in Myanmar.
          The work on the dream to use sun rays to fly had started as early as in the 1970s, when affordable solar cells were developed. But the first human flight was realised only in 1980. Currently there are several solar planes that exist but the current one ‘Solar Impulse-2’ is the most advanced. Its design and construction took 12 years. A first version of the craft rolled out in 2009 and broke records for height and distance travelled by a manned solar plane.
The Solar Impuse-2 is truly the most wonderful initiative to stir the conscience of people who have a responsibility to switch over to clean technologies. There is competition between dirty technologies and clean technologies, the former looks at the immediate gain and profits and job creation, the latter looks for the future as well. The two pioneers of the project feel, there is a need to increase awareness among youth as they alone have the energy to press ideas further and seek requisite policy changes from politicians.
          Finally after the hard work of a team of 80 engineers, the reliable ‘Solar Impulse-2’ could be developed. Several incredibly highly energy-efficient electric motors, lithium-polymer batteries, polyurethane insulating foam, LED landing lights, ultra-light carbon-fiber structures have been used to make an airplane which can remain in the air several days and nights together without fuel.
          Team of Andre Borschberg-Bertrand Piccard finally embarked on the mission taking off from Abu Dhabi on March 9 in the first leg of its journey to Muscat. Then in the second leg it flew from Muscat and after undertaking a 15-hour long flight reached Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport at Ahmadabad in the night with its wings illuminated with Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Hundreds of local students came next morning in large numbers to see it.
          The plane is very light like any household car weighing just 2,300 kg, but has very wide wings, 72 meters to accommodate solar panels with 17,248 solar cells. The solar panels of high efficiency convert some twenty percent of the solar energy incident on them into electricity, which is stored in Lithium-ion batteries to be used during the night.
        The first leg flight was undertaken by AndrĂ© Borschberg, a Swiss fighter pilot and engineer. The other pilot is Bertrand Piccard, a psychiatrist and world famous balloonist. The plane has room only for one pilot, so they take turns to fly it. The journey by solar plane is daunting and challenging for pilots owing to its low speed and necessity to keep awake with due attention for long hours. They are allowed to take short cat naps (twenty minutes every five hours) while the plane for that duration is left on auto pilot mode. To counter the stress and energise themselves the pilots take the help of Yoga. They have been practicing Yoga for last 12 years under the guidance of an Indian Yoga guru. Bertrand Piccard, the 57-year-old initiator and president of the Solar Impulse project, has also been reported practicing self-hypnosis to connect with the inner-self to get de-stressed.
What prompted the two pioneers? They say, people have been talking about climate change for over 15 years but the situation is only getting worse year after year. There is so much talk about the problem and the disaster it may bring, but not enough solutions coming forward. The solutions suggested have been found too costly and have been abandoned. The ‘Solar Impulse-2’ is a move to showcase a solution. Bertrand Piccard believes that our society can cut energy consumption by half by replacing old, polluting technologies with the clean technologies. Every effort should be made to develop technologies which can reduce energy consumption.
          The longest stretch in their five month long journey would be 8,170 km flight from Nanjing to Hawaii, which would take five days remaining in the sky. This will indeed be a huge challenge compared to the 1,468 km journey between Muscat to Ahmadabad which took 15 hours, which also was a world record for solar plane flight. After staying for a couple of days the plane took a flight to Varanasi, the constituency of prime minister Narendra Modi. No matter how courageous and pioneering their efforts might have been, for the Indian bureaucracy it was as though a routine affair and they took undue long days to clear their papers. 
          While the flight between Muscat to Ahmedabad was piloted by Bertrand Piccard, the third leg of the journey onward to Varanasi was undertaken by Andre Borschberg. By the time Solar Impulse-2 reached Babatpur Airport, Varanasi the Indian youth not only in this holy city but across the country had already known something about it through extensive media coverage. From the crowd that came to meet the pilots, a genuine question was popped up—what next. Borschberg told that their next goal is to build an unmanned version of the aircraft, which would remain in the air for as long as six months. They believe that this should be achievable by next year.

The Thinking of Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard, initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse. Born in a dynasty of explorers and scientists who conquered the heights and the depths of our planet. He is also a trained psychiatrist, specialised in hypnosis. This apart he is an international motivational speaker. He has an avant-gardist vision and possesses entrepreneurial and managerial qualities. André Borschberg, an engineer and graduate in science management, a fighter pilot and a professional airplane and helicopter pilot, is the co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse. He flew as a jet pilot in the Swiss Air Force prior to his work with Solar Impulse. His passion for aviation and his interest in innovative solutions have led him to team up with Bertrand Piccard in the Solar Impulse project.
Bertrand Piccard, a doctor, psychiatrist, explorer and aeronaut, who made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, is the initiator and chairman of the project solar impulse. He has highly enlightened ideas about the humanity and its future. He says that the next scientific and technological adventures should be humanitarian and medical, able to combat extreme poverty and contain new epidemics. Politically the efforts should be to improve our governance of the planet. At spiritual level we need to rediscover profound and sound values. And in the realm of technology efforts should be to provide durable answers to the threats to our environment.
He writes in one of his blogs that adventure is not necessarily a spectacular deed, but rather an ‘extraordinary’ one, meaning something that pushes us outside our normal way of thinking and behaving; something that forces us to leave the protective shell of our certainties, within which we act and react automatically. Adventure is a state of mind in the face of the unknown, a way of conceiving our existence as an experimental field, in which we have to develop our inner resources, climb our personal path of evolution and assimilate the ethical and moral values that we need to accompany our voyage. 

A scene of practicing self-hypnosis to keep alert and vigilant during the flight
          According to them their flight is to draw attention of the masses as well as technology developers to the fact that if a plane can fly on solar energy, why not cars, houses and other energy consuming systems. But the new products can come only if new technologies are developed. Solar Impulse-2 could become possible only because new technologies could be offered to drastically cut energy consumption and the weight of the aircraft. Media reports say a team of 80 engineers and technicians remained on the job to applying highly innovative solutions to achieve this. The plane has rightly been described as a real airborne technology lab.
          The long flights require challenges of endurance and vigilance for a single-pilot in an unheated and unpressurized cockpit for up to 5 or 6 days and nights in a row in the single seater cockpit. The pilot has to keep himself fit by doing physical exercises for this specialised multi-purpose seat has been designed which allows more legroom, has an ergonomic inflatable cushion and is light and functions as reclining berth and toilet. Since there are no heating systems in the cockpit, the pilot is protected against the ambient cold or heat, which could range from +40°C to -40°C by high-density thermal insulation in the cockpit structure.
          Nestle Health Science has developed special foods and drinks for them. Medical advice during the flight is given to them by specialists of high altitude medicine. It should be understood that though the pilot remain all alone in the cockpit but he is provided advice and instructions from the ground through Mission Control Centre established in Payerne where hundreds of technical parameters via satellite data-link remain available.
(Note: The article was first published in the Lokayat magazine:April, 2015)