Just past midnight on July 26, 2016, the Solar Impulse 2 touched down in Abu Dhabi, making headlines as the first solo-piloted plane to fly around the world without using a single drop of fuel. The solar-powered aircraft (the second version, following 2009’s prototype) broke records on its 43,000-kilometre journey; one leg, from Nagoya to Honolulu, was the longest distance flown by a solo aircraft of any kind, not only a solar-powered one.
The plane was piloted in turns by company co-founders Bertrand Piccard (a medical doctor and aeronaut known for making the first non-stop, round-the-world balloon flight in 1999) and engineer and pilot André Borschberg. The 72-metre wingspan of the Solar Impulse 2 is outfitted with 17,000 solar cells that convert the sun’s rays into usable energy. The batteries are also able to collect enough renewable energy to feed the motors through the night—a necessity when flying for nearly 118 hours straight at an average of 75 km/h.
Yet, while a round-the-world, zero-fuel plane trip is impressive, critics have noted Solar Impulse required a somewhat unimpressive 504-days to complete the journey—21 days of actual flight and a nine-month delay after the record-breaking flight from Nagoya to Honolulu caused the plane’s batteries to overheat. Piccard and Borschberg were island-bound while they repaired the batteries, awaited a season with longer daylight hours, and installed a cooling system to prevent the issue from reoccurring.
Setbacks, however, do not mean failure for Solar Impulse. “This airplane was not built to carry passengers, but to carry a message,” Piccard wrote in the company’s 2004 manifesto. “Flying around the world with no fuel demonstrates that we can reach incredible goals with clean and energy-efficient technologies. Let’s use them also on the ground!” That doesn’t mean that he’s lost hope that solar-powered commercial planes could be a thing of the future, but in the meantime, smaller steps can be taken.
The ultimate goal of Solar Impulse is to encourage the everyman to embrace energy efficiency. Through the Future is Clean movement, Solar Impulse has established partnerships with brands like Omega, Google, and Moët Hennessy to promote the technologies demonstrated in the Solar Impulse 2 (such as lightweight insulating panels that can be used in homes). Piccard acknowledges that the majority of people are unlikely to reform their lifestyles for the benefit of future generations, and so he encourages businesses to “adapt to the way [people] function” instead. He suggests top-down demonstrations of how energy-efficient technologies are a benefit people right now—as well as their grandchildren.
Solar Impulse, then, is more than an aircraft or a finite journey. It is an enduring message from Piccard and his crew: we have the technology to change the world.