Solar Powered Aircraft Flies From SF to NYC Under Solar Power (With a Few Pitstops)

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The solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, recently touched down at New York’s JFK after flying the final leg of its journey across the US. The trip, a decade in the making, was itself but another step on the Solar Impulse team’s quest to fly around the world on solar power alone, and ultimately, to realize the dream of perpetual flight with no fuel.

Solar Impulse flew from San Francisco to Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, and Washington DC on its way to NYC. In each city, the team organized an event to show off their plane, proselytize, and chat with local and national politicians and celebrities. The aircraft performed admirably until the tour's final leg, when an eight-foot tear in the fabric under the wing forced the pilot to land a few hours earlier than planned.

Given the experimental nature of the technology, the team took heart the prime issue was a relatively simple fix.

Though Solar Impulse is neither the first plane to fly under solar power, nor the first such machine to cross the US—it may be the best demonstration of solar flight to date. The aircraft holds three world records for manned solar-powered flight, including the highest flight (30,300 ft), the longest flight (26 hours), and the farthest flight (693 miles). Crucially, the plane is capable of flying overnight, relying entirely on batteries charged by the sun.

Solar Impulse co-founder, Bertand Piccard, celebrates his plane's maiden voyage.

Solar Impulse co-founder, Bertand Piccard, celebrates the plane's maiden voyage.

The Solar Impulse project, first launched in 2003, commenced building in 2008, and the team completed their prototype mid-2009. Although the plane is blanketed in close to 11,000 solar cells and over a quarter of the aircraft's mass goes to energy storage in its lithium batteries—the aircraft's four engines knock out a mere 40 horsepower.

To make up for the weight of the batteries, engineers built the 21-meter fuselage using carbon fiber and further lightened the load with bolts and screws made of Solvay PrimoSpire, an ultra-light plastic as hard as metal.

Solar Impulse’s wings are as long as an Airbus A340, but the plane’s total weight is a mere 3,527 lbs—or a little more than a Porsche 911. Because the rest of the construction is so light, the aircraft is able to take off and fly under its own power, day or night. But even so, the plane's average ground speed on the DC to NYC flight was a sluggish 16 mph. The trip took 18 hours, 23 minutes.

After wading through the project's epic webpage—rife with references to Jules Verne, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Chuck Yeager—you might at first be underwhelmed by the technology itself.

Sure, it's solar powered, but it takes six times longer than Amtrak to go from Washington to New York. It's hard to imagine a solar-powered aircraft replacing commercial airliners, the worst polluters in the air, anytime soon. The optimized Solar Impulse barely accommodates the weight of one passenger—never mind several hundred with luggage in tow.

Of course, the Wright brothers' first prototype didn't hint at commercial airlines or military jets. Perhaps better battery technology, more efficient solar panels, and radical new building materials and methods will subtract weight and add power and speed. (Maybe!)

But the likelier benefit? Folks will find other applications for solar flight. How about using a fleet of solar drones to replace expensive satellite infrastructure? Like Google Loon, minus the balloons. Or might an aircraft that can circle the globe without fuel be useful for reconnaissance? Sure! The technology has potential—even if the delivery is slightly overdone.

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 2 Responses

  • Edward Peschko July 15, 2013 on 7:46 am

    look – you mean well (I can see that) but I’m sorry, this is really just a gimmick and will always be a gimmick – and I’m sure in your heart of hearts you know this.

    No matter what the new materials or construction techniques, this will never ever come CLOSE to what current jumbo jets can do. Its a simple matter of power density – the sun is too diffuse a power source to accomodate the power needs of anything but the smallest aircraft (with one passenger). Physics, don’t you know. By quick calculation, a plane with that many passengers would require about 16 football fields worth of solar panels to get the approx 30,000 horsepower to lift off and maintain flight – this just ain’t going to happen – even with an order of magnitude or 2 of improvement.

    So could you do us all a favor and post some stories about next generation nuclear power? Please? I hasten to add that, unlike solar power, this *would* have the potential of radically reshaping flight, because we would need only a small, shielded MSR to provide the 20 MW of power required – and with the fuel load of a 747 being approximately 200 tons, could do so at half the weight. It could also do so without need of refuelling, and no emissions of greenhouse gases. It would also have the side effect of allowing us to fly around the world non-stop, and to generate base load when we aren’t using the plane.

    Thanks much..

  • Bryan Allen July 15, 2013 on 9:49 pm

    Thank you for being one of the few publications to mention that the Solar Impulse flight was NOT the first solar-powered flight across the US; it’s amazing the number of stories that either implied it was or came right out and said that it was. There were even articles claiming that Solar Impulse was the first solar-powered airplane ever to be flown! Of course, a cursory web search shows that’s not so, but I’ve been amazed at how few article writers apparently even did that. So once again, bravo, for getting the real story out there.