Solar plane to get inflatable hangar after Midwest storms

Jun 03, 2013
The Solar Impulse plane takes off from Mountain View, California on May 3, 2013. The first manned aircraft that can fly day and night powered entirely by solar energy was to leave Texas for Missouri on Monday.

The first manned aircraft that can fly day and night powered entirely by solar energy was to leave Texas for Missouri on Monday, and will use a "revolutionary" inflatable hangar to replace one damaged in last week's Midwest tornadoes.

Powerful storms that hit the St. Louis, Missouri area late Friday rendered Solar Impulse's hangar at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport unusable, organizers of its current US flight said.

As it sets out on the third leg of its US flight, a statement said that "to protect the aircraft upon landing... Solar Impulse will deploy a revolutionary inflatable structure for the first time" when it arrives in Missouri early Tuesday.

The Solar Impulse project, founded and led by two Swiss pilots, aims to showcase what can be accomplished without fossil fuels, and has set as its "ultimate goal" an around-the-world flight in 2015.

The first leg of Solar Impulse's US tour took place on May 3, when Swiss aviator Bertrand Piccard flew the aircraft from the San Francisco, California area to Phoenix.

On that initial leg, the plane—which has a slim body and four electric engines attached to enormous wings—flew at an average speed of about 30 miles (49 kilometers) per hour.

The aircraft set a new distance record on May 23 when it landed after the second leg of a cross-country US tour.

The previous distance record was attained by Solar Impulse one year ago on a 1,116 kilometer (693 mile) flight from Switzerland to Spain.

Now, Piccard will take off Monday on a a 21-hour flight—his longest flight in the single-seat cockpit to date. The Solar team will have just a few hours to set up an inflatable hangar to park the plane.

"The stopover in St. Louis during the crossing of the United States is very important and symbolic for ," the organizers said.

St. Louis was chosen as the Midwest stopover to pay homage to aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and his "Spirit of St. Louis," the first plane to fly from New York to Paris non-stop.

Energy provided by 12,000 solar cells powered the plane's propellers.

The plane can fly at night by reaching a high elevation of 27,000 feet (8,230 meters) and then gently gliding downward, using almost no power until the sun comes up to begin recharging the solar cells.

The US itinerary allows for up to 10 days at each stop in order to showcase the plane's technology to the public. Another stop is planned in the US capital Washington before the trip concludes in New York in early July.

The stopovers will allow Piccard and Borschberg to share duties and rest between flights.

A dashboard showing the live speed, direction, battery status, solar generator and engine power, along with cockpit cameras of both Piccard and his view from the plane, are online at live.solarimpulse.com.

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Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
The problem with solar airplanes is that they're ultimately very limited in how much energy and power is available to them. It's pretty much just a flying wing with no appreciable payload capability.

If you replace the pilot with some instrumentation, you could make it into a surveillance drone, but that's about it.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2013
It's pretty much just a flying wing with no appreciable payload capability.

So was the first plane of the wright brothers. This is a prototype at the very beginning of solar/electric airplane development. Bit early to say "this will never fly", don't you think?

While I agree that we aren't likely to see airbus sized solar planes any time in the future I could easily envision electric/solar planes on short range/national flights.
Certainly would be good for air quality.
italba
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
@Eikka: "That's about it"??? It's a multi billion market, no less! Consider also radio, tv, internet and cellular phone transmissions in fringe areas, geological, climate, archaeological research, pollution surveillance... I wonder, however, why don't they use solar blimps.
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (4) Jun 03, 2013
Tick tick, that's the sound of new mutations in our new antibiotic resistant era. These boondoggles spell GENOCIDE.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
So was the first plane of the wright brothers.


I kinda predicted that you would say that.

The difference to the Wrights plane is that engines got better and more powerful. The sun stays as it is, and solar panels are reasonably close to their theoretical maximum efficiency. You only get so much solar radiation per square meter, and materials don't scale up to support ever larger structures to collect it, so you're fundamentally limited in how much power a solar powered airplane can have.

Suppose you had twice the efficiency from today's models. What could you do with it? Carry a co-pilot instead of just one guy?

It would be an airplane with the wingspan of a jetliner with the carrying capacity of a small ultralight. It's hardly of any use.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
While I agree that we aren't likely to see airbus sized solar planes any time in the future I could easily envision electric/solar planes on short range/national flights.
Certainly would be good for air quality.


Scaling this thing up to carry A passenger is going to be a mean feat of engineering. Scaling it into a passenger airliner is just a ridiculous proposition. Besides, with wings so large relative to the weight of the plane, landing it in anything but good conditions is a deadly gamble.

But I grant you electric airplanes might see the light of the day if the batteries are up to it. It just becomes pointless to carry the solar panels along because they won't be able to supply 1/10th the amount of power the plane actually needs to fly, so their impact on the total operating range and utility would be negative, seeing they would just add weight.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2013
Scaling this thing up to carry A passenger is going to be a mean feat of engineering. Scaling it into a passenger airliner is just a ridiculous proposition.

There's a couple of things that can make this possible:
1) Better/lighte solar cells. If we're looking at how the energy density of batteries can decrease in the near future (if zinc-air or sodium-air batteries pan out) then that's some weight that could go towards passengers.
2) Solar cells have become more efficient/lighter. So that's an additional boost to operating specs
3) Possibly a different way of getting the thing off the ground (which currently uses a lot of the power stored in the batteries) via induction rails, or blimps, or even conventional, dedicated tow-planes.

I'd be sceptical on the PVs, too, for commercial planes (unless we use orbital concentrators - which seems a tad extravagant but would score high on the coolness scale)
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
As far as I can find, the Solar Impulse uses SunPower photovoltaic cells which provide a 24% efficiency from sunshine to electricity, and the maximum efficiency attainable with multi-junction cells under non-concentrated sunlight is between 30-40%

A theoretical infinite-junction cell would get 87% efficiency, which would just about quadruple the power available for the plane.

If we're making comparisons to the Wrights' Flyer - they had about 15 horsepowers at full throttle.The Solar Impulse is like if the most powerful engine you could ever have in a plane was about 50 hp. It would be as if airplane engine development stopped in 1908: http://en.wikiped...me_Omega

Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2013
2) Solar cells have become more efficient/lighter.


Not in the same form factor. Thin film cells are light but woefully inefficient, multi-junction monocrystalline cells are efficient but not light.

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