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Solar-Powered Plane Begins Flight Around The World

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted March 9, 2015

Endurance Test

A record-breaking attempt to circumnavigate the world in a solar-powered plane took off from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates at 7:12 this morning.

The aircraft, called the Solar Impulse 2, is heading East to Muscat, Oman as part of its first of many stops. The first leg will cover about 250 miles and take approximately 12 hours. It will also stop in India, China, and the United States over the next five months.

While the journey’s numerous stops are primarily in place to allow the pilots to rest and the plane to be maintained, they also serve to spread word about the technology that made the trip possible.

With 236 feet in wingspan, the Impulse is wider than a Boeing 747, yet it weighs about as much as a family sedan.

Its large wingspan and light weight will be critical to its success, along with the performance of the 17,000 photovoltaic cells that line the top of the wings and the high-capacity lithium-ion batteries which will power the aircraft through the night.

Two swiss pilots, Andre Borshberg and Bertrand Piccard, will split the responsibilities that involve seeing the solar-powered aircraft from its initial takeoff to its final touchdown.

Throughout the trip, the pilots will face challenges like having to remain in the air for five consecutive days and nights during their passage over the Pacific Ocean, at times relying on 20 minute naps to keep their fatigue in check.

Photo courtesy of Solar Impulse

Internet From The Sky, Powered By The Sun

This experiment in keeping solar-powered aircraft in flight for lengthy periods at a time could provide valuable data for the two companies vying for the top spot in the future of the Internet industry.

Both Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) have announced plans to provide breakneck-speed one-gigabit-per-second internet to under-served areas of the world through the use of solar-powered drones.

The drone maker, Titan Aerospace, which was formerly courted by Facebook for a full acquisition, is now a Google property. Facebook has since purchased Ascenta, a similar drone-manufacturing outfit, in order to stay competitive.

While it’s obvious that both companies have a ton to gain by successfully implementing their plans, faster Internet results in more traffic for Google and Facebook alike. Their services will provide a welcome alternative to the snail’s pace industry standard set by the duopoly of Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ).

Once in the air, the drone would be able to stay there for about five years, running on the solar power drawn in from 3,000 PV cells which fill the drone’s 50-foot wingspan.

It might be more accurate to say once in space, because the drones, or “atmospheric satellites”, will be at altitudes between 60,000 and 70,000 feet, which nearly reaches low-orbit heights.

Sea Change

While some are dismissing the Impulse’s mission as little more than a publicity stunt, whether or not the journey is a success might determine a large portion of solar technology’s future.

No matter what the outcome, solar power is projected to become the dominant source of electricity throughout the world by 2050.

The price of photovoltaic panels fell 70% in the last couple of years and prices are expected to drop by another 50% by the end of the decade.

Against current fossil fuel prices, solar is anticipated to be as cheap as natural gas in two-thirds of the world before 2020. However, it’s a sad state of affairs when it takes the world over three decades to both recognize and achieve a prescient energy source.

In the United States, coming off of a 22% growth spurt in 2014, jobs in the solar industry already outnumber jobs in the coal industry 2 to 1. The boom was triggered by government subsidies which, in turn, drew in venture capitalist investments.

The solar industry has gotten to the point where it isn’t just a huge asset in the fight against climate change and rising sea levels anymore, it’s also rewarding investors more than ever.