Archive for July 13th, 2012


Flying into the sun

Post from Harry Hutchinson:


Harry Hutchinson

Switzerland is a pretty cool place. I spent a week there a few years ago touring some of the country’s factories and several of its bars.

I wrote about that—the factories, anyway—in “Traced Back to the Watch,” in the January 2009 issue. The theme of the tour was micromanufacturing, which the Swiss have developed to a high degree in order to support one of their key industries, watchmaking. The micromachining and automation technologies they have refined continue to support the watch business, but also are used to make products ranging from medical devices to parts for miniature motors.

More recently, I’ve been checking in from time to time on something else cool in Switzerland. For the past few years, a project led by Bertrand Piccard, a psychiatrist, and André Borschberg, an engineer, has been developing a solar-powered airplane that—get this—they want to take on a non-stop flight around the world.

Their team, which contains about 90 people—engineers, technicians, mission controllers—has been testing a plane called Solar Impulse. It has made several flights, and so far, it has gotten as far as Morocco.

It isn’t fast, but it’s a gorgeous thing, with its long, flexible wings and extreme streamlining. Piccard was the pilot for the flight back to Europe, which went from Rabat to Madrid. Part of the fun, he wrote on the project’s website (, was that for a while the headwind was greater than the airspeed of his plane, so he was flying backwards.

The whole idea of the attempt puts me in mind of the experimental aircraft built more than 30 years ago by Paul MacCready’s company AeroVironment. One was the Gossamer Albatross, world’s first human-powered aircraft, and the other, the Solar Challenger, was solar-powered. They both won prizes, and places in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, by making historic flights. According to AeroVironment (, the human-powered plane crossed the English Channel in a 26-mile flight. The solar-powered plane traveled a total of 163 miles from Corneille-en-Verin Airport near Paris to a Royal Air Force base in England.

As someone who likes to ride a bicycle now and then, I got a bigger kick out of the Albatross. But it’s interesting to see how the Solar Impulse team is trying to extend its range. Rabat to Madrid is about three times farther than the trip from France to England.

What’s more, I’ve read that MacCready’s solar-powered plane carried no energy storage devices. Solar Impulse landed in Madrid at night, so the team proved the aircraft can fly when the sun is down.

Piccard was half of the team that completed the first non-stop balloon flight around the Earth. Will he and Borschberg be able to take a solar-powered plane on the same kind of journey? That would mean making and storing enough energy while the sun shines to carry them through the night.

I couldn’t think about making the trip. I’d go stir-crazy sitting in such a tight space for days on end.

Maybe the plane will have to land before it gets very far. Who knows?

But that’s the nature of an experiment. Nobody knows what works until somebody tries it.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

July 2012

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