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From left: Noriko Kato, ACCJ Chubu operations manager; Daniel Cohen, Solar Impulse PR; Ryan Locascio, Aero Solutions Business Development manager, Rob Jacobs, and Johnny Gamalo, Pratt & Whitney PW1200G Program general manager.

From left: Noriko Kato, ACCJ Chubu operations manager; Daniel Cohen, Solar Impulse PR; Ryan Locascio, Aero Solutions Business Development manager, Rob Jacobs, and Johnny Gamalo, Pratt & Whitney PW1200G Program general manager.

On June 1, just before midnight, the Chubu region was unexpectedly included in a revolutionary journey around the world. The result of the most ambitious experiment in modern aviation history, the Solar Impulse 2 made an unscheduled landing at Komaki Airport, Aichi Prefecture, due to unfavorable weather—the aircraft was en route to Hawaii on its seventh of a 13-leg flight.

Although a disappointment for the crew of the Solar Impulse, citizens of Chubu reveled in seeing firsthand the aircraft which, on a world-circumnavigating journey, is operated using solar power only.

THE RISE OF SOLAR
In an ever-changing world, we tend to take new technologies for granted. Without realizing it, society has come to expect the “next big thing” to hit the shelves on a weekly basis. Most of these expectations fall in the category of communications and connectivity—the Internet, smartphones, and so on—in the so-called information age.

During the same period of gadget improvement, a plethora of advancement in other fields has also taken place, although these advances largely have gone unnoticed. Perhaps the sci-fi movies are to blame; flying cars, hover boards, and personal space flight are all already supposed to have hit the market.

Among the unseen revolutions of the technological world is advanced solar power. We have been using solar-powered calculators for decades. We see solar panels on rooftops and don’t blink an eye. What we are not seeing, perhaps, is the drastic drop in the cost of producing solar-powered products.

From 2012 to 2013 alone, the cost of producing a solar panel dropped 30 percent, a direct result of huge technological advances in photovoltaic cells, which convert light energy into electricity. But why aren’t these advancements generally known? The answer is that, since its inception, solar power has been used to tackle two problems: powering small devices and providing electricity to the grid. Until now.

POWERING FLIGHT, EFFECTING CHANGE
An aircraft designed to fly around the world on nothing but solar power and really big wings, the Solar Impulse has introduced solar technology to aviation. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg initiated the effort in 2003, after performing a feasibility study with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Both of them pilots and engineers, Piccard and Borschberg have invested over a decade on this project and turned a small idea into a global phenomenon. Which begs the question: why?

Much more than a sun-powered airplane, the Solar Impulse sends a message to the world. Through its web-based petition, at Futureisclean.org, Solar Impulse endeavors to gather as many web-signatures as possible for a communal “I want concrete action for a clean energy future.”

The team’s intention is to take its message to the United Nation Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December. Flying around the globe on nothing more than solar energy, the vehicle proves that modern technology is capable of reducing world dependence on fossil fuels.

BUILDING ZERO FUEL PLANES
To prove both the concept and the message, the Solar Impulse has pushed the limits of modern technology. Using the mantra, “as long as it doesn’t break, it can be made lighter,” the Solar Impulse weighs in at a scant 2.3 metric tons (2,300 kilograms)—about as much as a pickup truck. The team uses carbon fiber and other super-lightweight materials wherever possible.

Due to its unique power, weight, and lifting requirements, the Solar Impulse wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747—the jumbo jet. Known as a high-aspect-ratio wing, the reason for its great span is two-fold: increased ability to fly at low speeds, and a large surface on which to mount 17,248 solar cells.

The photovoltaic cells, each the thickness of a human hair, charge four lithium–ion batteries. Each battery produces 41kWh of power to drive an electric motor that, in turn, drives the propellers. Since the power output of the motors is low for aviation standards, increased lift is needed at low speeds. The combination of weight, power, and lift results in a top speed of about 50 knots (90km/h). Though impressive, the engineering challenges might not be the biggest ones. The logistics of operating the Solar Impulse may be even more astounding.

MULTINATIONAL AVIATION
The 140-person team is divided into two groups, namely, those who travel around the world with the aircraft and those at mission control in Monaco. Prior to the around-the-world flight, the mission control team modelled two years of weather in an effort to best plan the record-breaking journey. Now, the center monitors weather 24 hours a day. They communicate with the deployed team, address maintenance issues, and promote the mission to the general public.

The traveling team of about 60 individuals coordinates with local authorities and airports for permission to operate under special circumstances. The plane’s slow speed, for instance, requires a temporary halt of incoming air traffic. At each landing location, if hangar space is unknot available, they must setup a temporary inflatable hanger within the security perimeter. And strangest of all, the Solar Impulse personnel must be granted permission to be on the tarmac to “catch” the plane on landing.

What’s more, the Solar Impulse is a round-the-world business trip for 60 people to more than a dozen cities. Expense reports, cell phones, and language barriers are all part of the logistics that must be considered. Since 2003, the project has earned a variety of corporate and private sponsors that include the Schindler Group, LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.E., Omega SA, and Google Inc.

FLYING SOLO
Weight constraints limit the aircraft’s onboard sensors, such as radar. The pilot flies by sight and audio cues from mission control. The flight strategy is to increase altitude throughout the day while the batteries are at full capacity then, overnight, to glide down, before repeating the daytime tactic next day. The aircraft’s range of between 1,000 and 9,000 meters involves significant temperature and pressure changes. The pilot must make do with a change of heavy clothing and on board oxygen tanks.

The record solo flight from Nagoya to Hawaii took five days. How does one sleep? On board is a rudimentary autopilot that enables the pilot to have short periods of shuteye: 20 minutes at a time, 10 times a day. One can only imagine how minimal sleep, constant temperature changes, and the fact that you are manning a fuel-less aircraft might affect focus. With years of meticulous planning, the Solar Impulse team has considered everything. Within the 3.8 cubic meter cockpit, no detail has been overlooked. There is even a solution when nature calls.

EARNING ITS WINGS
Notwithstanding the technical, logistical, and human challenges they face, the Solar Impulse team prevails. As they are flying directly in the face of their primary target of climate change, it shows other industries how old science can be applied to new problems.

For the field of aerospace, transforming the trend of incremental innovation into a firestorm of discontinuous innovation can bring the advances of air travel up to speed with those of the information age. The industry has been implementing incremental innovations to the same root technology for more than 50 years. Maybe the “next big thing” is waiting in the Solar Impulse wings.

RobJacobsBio

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Rob Jacobs is vice chair of the ACCJ Chubu Aerospace Industry Subcommittee.

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