Piccard is an adventurer: He'd already piloted a hot-air balloon around the world. But his idea for an aircraft called Solar Impulse wasn't simply about scoring another aviation record—he wanted the world to reimagine what is possible with solar energy.
The public, which gets excited about great adventures, is ready to join the dreams of pioneers and explorers.
Some 12 years later, he and co-pilot André Borschberg have realized their vision. After more than a year of flying and stops in 17 cities, the pilots became the first to fly a solar-powered aircraft around the globe, landing in Abu Dhabi July 26.
Piccard and Borschberg took turns flying the special plane, which was loaded with super-efficient solar cells and batteries. The flights, which lasted as long as four or five days at a time, required great mental strength and physical stamina.
Even more challenging, Piccard and Borschberg worked tirelessly to secure the $170 million needed to make the project happen. “When we started, we had one year of visibility," Piccard said of the budget in 2012. "And now, we still have one year of visibility. We get used to it.”
Even though commercial flight using only solar power isn't feasible anytime soon, the project is "a nice demonstration that these sorts of things are possible," says Craig Steeves, associate director of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. "Years ago, one would not have been able to do this." (For comparison, a Boeing 747 burns about 5 gallons of fuel per mile.)
Piccard and Borschberg are working to advance the plane's technologies, which could be used in everything from solar drones to electric cars. The journey around the globe is complete, they say, "but this is only the beginning."
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