On July 27, 2016, Bertrand Piccard successfully touched down Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi, completing its around-the-world voyage in the same exact spot it took off from on March 9, 2015. This put an end to the 42,000 kilometer journey that he and Andre Borschberg embarked upon 15 months ago to circumnavigate the globe without a single drop of fuel.
The Solar Impulse 2 was a long-pursued project, and, to be able to function entirely off solar power, it required a somewhat bizarre design. Needing to accommodate the 17,248 solar cells used to absorb photons and the battery storage necessary to maintain the use of the renewable energy, different efforts were made to keep the solar-powered plane lightweight. For example, the cockpit was designed for only a single pilot at a time; their space was incredibly cramped. From this, even though plane’s wingspan is wider than a Boeing 747, it weighs 2,300 kg, about the same as a family sedan.
Even with the meticulous efforts taken during its development that lasted over one decade, the Solar Impulse 2 still faced many challenges. For a while, it even seemed like the two pilots wouldn’t be able to complete succeed. In July 2015, the aircraft accomplished a great feat: Borschberg completed a four-day, 21-hour, 52-minute trip from Japan to Hawaii, the world’s longest non-stop solo flight, which also set the world record for flying distance in a solar plane at 8,924 km. However, due to battery problems that resulted from this extended journey, the project had to be delayed for almost one year.
But, as Piccard stated last year, “The most important thing isn’t to break world records.” Like other explorers and journeyers in the past, Piccard and Borschberg carried out their project to demonstrate something to the world. Common in history, explorers accomplished this by simply finding someplace new or uncovering a new route for travel. A good example of this is Ferdinand Magellan, who, in 1519, set out to discover a westward route to the Spice Islands and became the first person to circumnavigate the Earth.
However, in modern times, there is very little to discover geographically. As a result, an extended voyage is far more symbolic. For example, in the 1930s, many of the major accomplishments of Amelia Earhart were so monumental not just because of the world records that she gained, such as becoming the first person to fly across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but because she proved that women were equally capable as men for completing miraculous feats.
Solar Impulse created an aircraft for transcontinental travel in pursuit of a similar cause. The Solar Impulse 2 model was never meant to be mass-produced into a fleet of solar-powered planes, or even remain in perfect condition as it landed in its final destination in Abu Dhabi, but to prove that air travel was possible using only renewable energy. With a rising interest in clean energy generation throughout the world, it is essential to test the limits of current technology to see how well it can be utilized.
And, as with other famed expeditions in the past, the journey of the Solar Impulse 2 was not without its challenges. Aside from the long period of stagnation for almost one year, the pilots had to make many sacrifices in their plane that traveled at a slow 50 km/h (31 mph). In their cramped cockpit with no heating, Piccard and Borschberg subsided on a diet developed by Nestle, which occasionally consisted of mushed up foods, and was paired with one liter of sports drink daily. They didn’t even have a real toilet, just a hole in their seat.
But, they kept going, and made use of different techniques to make the trip more bearable. On his nonstop journey across the Pacific, Borschberg, who was only able to take irregular naps of no more than 20 minutes at a time, did yoga and meditation. The support that the pilots were given by the public helped as well. In the United States, the aircraft stopped in a variety of towns, where people came out to catch a glimpse of the plane. With the support that they received, the journey of the two pilots has become a major success for both clean energy and aviation.
Moments after landing in Abu Dhabi, Piccard stuck his hand out of the cockpit, giving a thumbs up, and said: “We made it! We made it! All together, we did it!”