Passenger-carrying solar planes may be only a decade away

Solar-powered planes could be used to carry passengers within a decade, Bertrand Piccard, the record-breaking balloonist and solar plane pilot has said.

Piccard, who is planning to fly the Solar Impulse 2 solar plane around the world next year, made the prediction during a press event in Switzerland.

As president, initiator and pilot for the company, Piccard was discussing his plans for next year’s mission and his future hopes for solar powered planes.

He said: “Short haul flights with 50 passengers could be ten years”, but warned that there were still many challenges to make this achievable.

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In particular, he highlighted the need to change attitudes within the air transport industry.

As an emerging transport solution, solar has struggled to be taken seriously as a power source for air travel, with many in the aircraft industry seeing it as more of a gimmick.

Even where solar is being explored, it is largely being treated as a source of support power.

Airbus, for example, is researching it as a source of electricity once a plane is cruising, but has made no announcements to suggest it is looking to make a plane running entirely on solar power.

However, the solar industry is making remarkable gains, with improvements in the technology coming thick and fast.

In the past year alone we’ve heard about the development of solar batteries, transparent solar collectors and spray-on solar cells, among many others, and this trend of development is set to continue.

The solar market as a whole is anticipated to grow, with big surges being seen across residential and commercial use, and a recent development widening the climates where solar is effective.

When Solar Impulse undertakes its round-the-world solar trip next year it will be making history: the trip will be the first time a solar plane has completed such a journey.

Piccard will pilot the Solar Impulse 2 plane over five months, in a series of meticulously-planned segments a month apart.

In total the plane will spend almost a month in the air, a feat which will certainly help to quell doubts about the suitability of solar for air transport.


In Pictures: The solar plane set to circumnavigate the globe

Factor has been given rare access to a solar plane that will be flown around the world in 2015.

Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse president, initiator and pilot, plans to fly around the world in the latest solar powered aeroplane that his company has built next year.

With a balloonist and undersea explorer for father and grandfather respectively, Piccard is no stranger to epic journeys.

In 1999 he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon, a feat that earned him a slew of awards and honours.

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The latest iteration of the plane, Solar Impulse 2, will be flown around the world over a period of five months, stopping in various locations for a month at a time.

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In total the plane will be in the air for around 25 days, with each leg of the journey being meticulously planned and simulated before it’s completed.

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However Piccard said that the challenges to complete the flight are vast and range from political to more obvious considerations such as the weather.

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“What keeps us up at night is everything. Nobody has done it before. There is no benchmark. Absolutely everything is new,” he said.

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In 2010 the first iteration of the plane completed a 24 hour flight and has also flown overnight as it stores energy harvested from the solar panels in on-board batteries.

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Piccard said: “We can say that Solar Impulse has the technology of yesterday, Solar Impulse 2 has the technology of tomorrow.”

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The aim for future developments of the plane would be to create a solar powered plane that is able to fly around the world non-stop, Piccard said.

Factor viewed the plane today in Switzerland, and will feature it fully in the January edition of our digital magazine.