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Solar Impulse

To tell the story of SolarImpulse – the first solar aero plane project – we have to begin seven years ago in Switzerland. Here the idea was born. This summer the initiators and pilots André Borschberg and Bernard Piccard flew with it across the USA covering more than 5.600 km despite being confronted with heavy weather challenges. SolarImpulse, the first airplane ever to fly day and night on solar energy only, proved the reliability and efficiency of clean technologies and renewable energies.

SolarImpulse took advantage of Switzerland’s long tradition of technological innovation, research and entrepreneurial excellence. Over the centuries this small landlocked country has developed a strong relationship between the academic and business sectors, facilitating collaboration between laboratories, universities and some of the world’s most technologically innovative startups and small-medium enterprises: an ideal blend to kick start a revolutionary project. ECO123 spoke with André Borschberg just after landing on JFK airport in New York:

Small Step for Man?

We would like to know a little bit more about your flight crossing the United States. You are a Swiss air force pilot and now you flew an aeroplane at a speed of only 50 km an hour. What is the difference?

André Borschberg Pilot Solar ImpulseAndré Borschberg: Many similarities but also significant differences; the more you fly with Solar Impulse the more energy you have in the batteries of the aeroplane. You can take off with empty batteries, climb up to a height of 30,000 feet and at the same time you can fill up the batteries. When night falls you have the choice, either you can land and give the energy to the grid or you could continue to fly during the night. That is very different to normal aeroplanes and especially to fighters. The flights are short; the fuel consumption is very high. If you are not careful you run out of fuel. That is one part of it. The other part is, speed is not what matters. It is not about going fast. It is about getting to your destination.

When we crossed the US we always had too much time available because of the air traffic. We were forced to take off early and forced to land late. We had a lot of time available. So we had the possibility of enjoying the present moment. It is very special to fly Solar Impulse. That is different to our normal life and activities. We are always in a hurry. We are focused on arriving, on our destination, on finishing what we do. To fly Solar Impulse brings you to a very wonderful state of mind.

So humankind has to change its basic habits. Instead of becoming faster and faster, now slower? What does endurance mean to you then?

What can we do with endurance? We can cross the ocean, or we can ideally fly round the world without need to refuel. It gives you independence. Of course, it is the beginning. It is the first step. We live exactly in a time like Charles Lindbergh and the Wright brothers. They could be alone in the cockpit but it was the first step that led afterwards to future development and right up to the time when we reached the moon. I think we should do it the same way.

Can we say you are flying the first perpetual motion machine, flying like Leonardo da Vinci always dreamt of doing?

You can put it that way. Yes. Certainly it is a very important step forward. Solar Impulse is the only aeroplane in the world which has the capability. It will take quite some time to develop solar aeroplanes which can transport passengers or cargo. We have an aeroplane which is very, very efficient in terms of energy. We have the technology which uses very little energy to make this aeroplane fly. This ecological technology can start to be used on navigation, in mobility, in home building, in other appliances. That is a step which can be taken immediately. It is proven that you need very little energy to fly. You can charge your batteries with solar electricity to fly for an unlimited time.

Your partner Bertrand Piccard said “every difficulty is a potential opportunity”. What do you think is the biggest opportunity of mankind: clean mobility, food or humankind itself?

André Borschberg e Bernard Piccard Solarimpulse Pilots
André Borschberg e Bernard Piccard

I think we have a lot of challenges ahead. Energy is very important for having access to food and to water which are essential. Energy for me is an essential need. We are facing two possibilities, either we produce more and more energy and we work on what we call the supply chain. Or we do just the opposite, exactly what we did with the aeroplane: we try to reduce demand. And the way to reduce demand is to use the technology we already have, which provides energy saving: with better insulation, with a lighting system which eliminates heat, lighter material for transportation. There are so many measures which are already available; which we can implement; which can make access to energy cheaper as well.

How could Solar Impulse become a real solution for commercial aviation?

This is definitely a first step. Something important for people who don’t believe that we will fly solar in future is a conversation I had with the great nephew of the Wright brothers in Ohio, with Steve Wright. He told me that what he heard from his great uncles was that they couldn’t imagine at the time they flew their first aeroplanes that one could fly many passengers over the ocean one day. They could not imagine that this would be possible one day; despite the fact that they invented the aeroplane. We are definitely in the same situation a hundred years later. It is very difficult to see how this technology will develop, but if we don’t take a first step today it will never be ready tomorrow.

 As what do you see yourself, as a pioneer of aviation?

Well, I see myself as an entrepreneur, that is what I did all my life, working on new ideas and on new projects. I think if we can inspire many people at the same time that would be good. We had the chance to see a lot of young children, schools with students who visited Solar Impulse in San Francisco, Phoenix, Dallas, Saint Louis and Washington. And of course when you see young kids with shining eyes when they look at this aeroplane, when they are inspired the way we have been inspired. That is extraordinarily important and a wonderful feeling.

Why are you doing what are you doing? Is there a commercial reason as well?

There is certainly no commercial reason – it gives meaning to one’s life! I had the chance to be able to do that because of the experience I have; the exposure I have from my childhood, from my student time, from my commercial time. It could be someone else if the project can provide inspiration. We are celebrating today the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and he wrote the book in New York. It was published in 1943. I just met the ambassador of the Saint-Exupéry Foundation. Saint-Exupéry inspired so many people. He was a pilot and a writer. If we can also provide the message and develop the project as a humanistic project – but not only develop technologies – that would also be a very positive dimension. Bertrand Piccard and I would be very happy.

You plan to go around the world in your Solar Aeroplane. When will you do this and which countries will be involved?

splarimpulse and the little princeIt will definitely be in 2015. Next year we will test the second aeroplane with the new construction. We will be connecting countries around the world. We will focus on the next generation, young people, different countries, India, China, the United States, the Middle East with different stops.

Portugal is the first country after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. You could visit us in Faro, Beja, Lisbon or Porto with Solar Impulse…

Of course, yes, if the weather permits a stop, absolutely.

May we invite you to visit Portugal during your circumnavigation of the world in 2015?

Yes, why not. That is a nice goal. We can talk about it with great pleasure when I am back in Switzerland.

Thank you very much for the conversation.


More information: www.solarimpulse.com
This article was written on a Compaq Presario A900 which emits no CO2 be- cause it is powered by solar electricity.

About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123”  and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)

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