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Solar Impulse - the latest Piccard project

Updated on April 7, 2015

The Piccards - a family of pioneers

Whether exploring the upper atmosphere or venturing down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench the name Piccard stands for new frontiers and human advancements. Now in its third generation the Piccard clan is about to launch its most futuristic project ever: flying around the earth solely powered by the sun!

Who would have thought this might ever be possible, when August Piccard, Bertrand's grandfather, begun his experiments in the early part of the 20th century?

He went to the same school as Einstein

Auguste Antoine Piccard
Auguste Antoine Piccard | Source

Auguste Antoine Piccard

(28 January 1884 - 24 March 1962)

Auguste Antoine was born in Basel and studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Later he became professor at the university of Brussels. His interest in ballooning led him to design a gondola that could reach the upper atmosphere. His first flight took off from Augsburg, Germany in 1931 and reached the impressive height of 15,781 m. A year later he reached a record height of 16,200 m taking off from Dubendorf, Switzerland. During his life he made a total of 27 flights ultimately reaching a record height of 23,000 m.

His primary interest was not about setting records, but making scientific discoveries. While high up in his balloon Auguste gathered data from the upper atmosphere and measured cosmic rays in support of the theory of relativity of Einstein, whom Auguste knew from the Solvay conferences and who had also studied at ETH.

While working on his gondola Auguste realized a modification would allow the balloon cockpit to be used to descend into the depths of the oceans. In 1937 he came up with the design of bathyscathe, a small steel gondola that could withstand great pressure. To allow descend and ascend a large flotation tank was attached above the heavy steel capsule. The tank was then filled with gasoline, not as fuel, but as low density liquid to provide buoyancy. To lower the vessel tons of iron were attached with a release mechanism for resurfacing. Due to World War II the first unmanned experiments were done only in 1948. By 1953 Auguste and his son Jacques were able to go down 3,150 m to explore the marine life of the Tyrrhenian Sea..


(Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek is named after August's twin brother Jean, a chemist and fellow balloonist.)


Jacques Piccard

(28 July 1922 - 1 November 2008)

Jacques was in born in Brussels, Belgium and became an oceanographer and engineer further developing the underwater vessels of his father to study ocean currents. While his father August had twice beaten the altitude record in a balloon, Jacques went into the opposite direction. In 1960 Jacques Piccard and Lt. Don Walsh in their bathyscaphe Trieste reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the lowest point of the earth's crust, some 10,900 m (38,800 ft) below sea level.

Jacques remained fascinated by the deep oceans and established a foundation for research and preservation of marine life.


The Bathyscaphe Trieste

"Take a deep breath!"
"Take a deep breath!" | Source

Continuing a legacy

Bertrand Piccard
Bertrand Piccard | Source

Breitling Orbiter 3

High up and around the globe
High up and around the globe | Source

Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand was born in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 1, 1958. Growing up in a ballooning and undersea-exploring family Bertrand was fascinated with flying from his youth (in this sense he entered the footsteps of his grandfather Auguste rather than those of his father Jacques).

As a child he had had the privilege to meet Charles Lindbergh and even rocket-designer Wernher von Braun while his father had been working in the US.

In 1999, together with co-pilot Brian Jones, Bertrand Piccard made the first around the globe non-stop hot air balloon flight. Their Breitling Orbiter 3 took off from the Swiss balloon mecca Chateau d'Oex and landed 20 days later in the Egyptian desert after more than 45,000 km.

Bertrand was also thrilled by microlight aircraft becoming a champion of hang-glider acrobatics.

Aside his passion for flying, Bertrand has an interest for human behavior. He trained as psychiatrist to gain a better understanding of the mind and how hypnosis might help to overcome extreme situations of stress.

His interest for the inner world of man may go back to his great grandfather Jules Piccard, a chemistry professor in Basel who studied chrysin, a substance of the passion flower, as remedy for anxiety.

Increasingly worried about the challenges a polluted environment poses to our children, in the early 2000s Bertrand partnered with Andre Borschberg, a veteran pilot, mechanical engineer and entrepreneur to launch the Solar Impulse project, i.e. to built a plane capable of flying solely powered by the sun. Though initially derided for their vision Solar Impulse was soon to become a reality.


Solar Impulse 1

Checking the fuel level before take-off
Checking the fuel level before take-off | Source

The Solar Impulse plane

The main challenge of Solar Impulse was to built an ultralight plane with sufficient wingspan to take off even if powered only by feeble, solar-charged batteries.

The first prototype took 7 years of development. In 2010 Solar Impulse 1 made the first overnight solar-powered flight lasting 26 hours. During the day the wing-mounted solar cells charge a set of lithium batteries that provide power during nighttime. Solar Impulse 1 managed the first sun-powered intercontinental flight from Switzerland to Morocco.

Will the fuel last to circle the globe?

Solar Impulse 2
Solar Impulse 2 | Source

Exploration to Change the World

Solar Impulse 2

As Solar Impulse 1 performed with accolades the project went into the next stage. In April 2014 the Swiss duo Piccard and Borschberg, sponsored by behemoths like Solvey, Schindler, ABB and Omega, unveiled Solar Impulse 2. The admittedly awkward looking plane is made of the most advanced technologies in material sciences and has some truly unique features.

Having about the overall weight of a car, Solar Impulse 2 has a wingspan larger than than that of a 747. With a top speed of about 70 km/h Solar Impulse is no match to supersonic jets, but it flies as silent as a paper plane. And exclusively solar-powered it has zero emissions. Theoretically the sun-powered plane could fly forever as the sun powers the small propeller engines by day, while the lithium batteries connected to the 17,000 solar cells integrated in the wing design store sufficient energy to power the four engines by night or during bad weather.

For maximum energy efficiency all cockpit amenities had to go. This means no air conditioning or heating, a rigid seat and a cockpit barely sufficient to allow for basic necessities.

The cockpit had to be surrounded by high-density foam to protect the pilots from extreme temperature peaks that can vary from minus 40 C to plus 40 C. The cramped cockpit is equipped with a multipurpose seat including toilet, parachute and life-raft. The pilots will also have to practice polyphasic sleep, i.e. sleeping several times throughout the day but only for 20 min, to always guarantee proper flight operations. Needless to say, a stewardess and menu are not on offer for this flight.

If everything goes according to plan Solar Impulse 2 is expected to begin its journey in March 2015 taking from the Golf Region. The biggest challenge will be the 5 days over the Pacific, 120 hours that will also be the longest flight for a single pilot.


The vision of Solar Impulse

Ultimately it is not about setting records. Piccard and Borschberg, both the father of three, think more about advancing innovation and sustainability for their children in the future. As the slogan of Solar Impulse 2 goes 'Exploration to change the world', it is to prove that pioneering spirit and innovation can really change the world. As Bertrand Piccard stated it is ultimately about a dream coming true: "with perseverance, with courage, with pioneering spirit, you can achieve great things. I think that’s the main message of what we’re doing. We have the message about clean technologies and renewable energies and protecting the environment, but we also want to encourage people to fulfill their dreams. To get out of habits that keep them a prisoner of old ways of thinking. We need to be able to project ourselves into the unknown to stimulate our creativity, and leave question marks and doubts behind in order to be more potent and more efficient in life. This is what Solar Impulse is all about.

The first RTW solele solar powered flight takes off

On March 9, 2015 Solar Impulse 2 took off from Abu Dhabi for the first ever Round-The-World (RTW) solar powered flight. The first leg was flown by André Borschberg to Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman over a distance of 441 km. The following day Bertrand Piccard took over for the second leg from Muscat to Ahmedabad in India over a distance of 1,485 km. A total of 12 legs is scheduled until the arrival back in Abu Dhabi. Follow this fascinating project on SolarImpulse.com


Will there be solar-powered passenger flights in the future?

Do you expect solar-powered passenger flighths to become a reality by the end of the 21st century?

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