Out of the sky and into the history books

Solar Impulse 2 is seen before landing in Abu Dhabi to finish the first around the world flight without the use of fuel. Reuters
Solar Impulse 2 is seen before landing in Abu Dhabi to finish the first around the world flight without the use of fuel. Reuters

Quietly, with a minimum of fuss, Solar Impulse 2 glided to a halt at Al Bateen airport in Abu Dhabi – and into the history books. The plane had just achieved the first solar-powered circumnavigation of our globe. While the final flight was low-key, as intended, its impact will be felt for decades to come.

Solar Impulse 2 took off from Abu Dhabi on March 9 last year. Six weeks later, on the leg across the Pacific, a hiccup occurred when the aircraft’s battery malfunctioned, stranding it in Hawaii for several months. For an endeavour of this magnitude, it must be viewed with great relief that there was nothing unfixable and the aircraft was able to return to its trajectory towards history.

Because Solar Impulse 2 has been in the air, and in the news, for so long, the magnitude of the journey might be lost to many. That would be a mistake. For in truth, this has been an epic adventure of monumental significance to how we conceive of air travel in the future and the role of renewable energy today.

No the race is on to take the proof of solar’s viability and build on the technology. How can the technology be better harnessed? How big can an aircraft be, and to what use can it be put? Is it possible for hybrid engines to be used, drastically reducing the need for carbon fuels? And what about lessons for all manner of vehicles? For solar energy, this is an exciting time.

The first Wright brothers’ flight, after all, lasted only 12 seconds, but 16 years later the first transatlantic flight took place. Imagine what could be achieved by 2032 with energy, enthusiasm and investment. The Solar Impulse programme has revolutionised how engineers must now look at aircraft and the limits of what is possible. After Solar Impulse, a new generation of engineers can dream and build what was previously unthinkable. In that fledgling field, Masdar and Abu Dhabi will at the forefront. Solar Impulse acts as a beacon, drawing to the capital expertise from around the world, even as we build our very own cadre of advanced techologists.

It is also noteworthy, as Bertrand Piccard, the co-founder and second pilot, said that it was an oil-producing country that created Masdar and has hosted and promoted the project. Discovering new ways to harness renewable energy is at the core of Masdar’s mission and something on which the UAE has spent time and energy. In a country with plenty of sunlight and oil, we’re using one to reduce our dependency on the other.

Published: July 26, 2016 04:00 AM

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