Solar plane set to arrive in Abu Dhabi next month

Weighing the equivalent of a standard sedan car, the Solar Impulse plane will take about 600 flying hours to go around Earth without fuel.

Swiss pilots, Bertrand Piccard, front, and Andre Borschberg, will take turns to fly the plane. EPA /Anthony Anex
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The Solar Impulse plane is set to arrive in Abu Dhabi in a few weeks, and will then leave the capital to circumnavigate Earth using nothing but energy from the sun.

Weighing the equivalent of a standard sedan car, the Solar Impulse plane will take about 600 flying hours to go around Earth without fuel.

The Swiss pilots, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, will take turns to fly the plane. Certain cross-continental legs will push them to maintain focus for sometimes up to five days and nights.

“We have an airplane that is completely sustainable in terms of energy,” said Mr Borschberg, a former Swiss air force pilot.

“The other question is that there is only one pilot for the airplane [at a time] and we need to make the pilot sustainable as well, to be able to live in this space day and night.”

The team has been implementing several methods to try to maximise rest time and maintain focus for days on end while cramped in a cockpit just 3.8 square metres in size. The space is smaller than the inside of the average saloon car.

“We learnt how to breathe,” he said. “We are resting for very short periods of time, then we developed techniques to rest without sleeping. Sometimes we have short naps, sometimes we use yoga meditation.”

The team has also developed special food that can withstand a range of temperatures as low as minus 20°C and as high as 35°C.

The plane itself is an engineering first. It uses solar panels as thin as strands of hair to generate energy and minimise weight. The engine operates at 97 per cent efficiency – so efficient that at times it has a completely charged battery upon landing.

“The difference, talking about the way this airplane flies, is there is one thing that is amazing – that you can take off in the morning with zero fuel and, just using the energy from the sun, at the same time you can recharge the battery,” said Mr Borschberg.

Flying the solar plane is not only a zero-emissions operation, it is also a source of energy that could be fed back into the grid.

“It’s an incredible experience of course; the airplane is very quiet,” said Mr Borschberg.

“It makes almost no noise, so while you fly you can hear noises from the ground and other airplanes in the sky.”

The team will leave Abu Dhabi in March, and spend five months circumnavigating the Earth before returning to the capital.

The Solar Impulse team is partnering with the Masdar Institute to complete the project.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State and Chairman of Masdar, said: “Abu Dhabi, Masdar and Solar Impulse have in common a pioneering spirit, a long-term vision and a desire to explore new horizons. We share a commitment to foster the development of technological advances in alternative energy sources, in order to contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future.”

Dr Nawal Al Hosany, director of sustainability at Masdar and director of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, said: “State-of-the-art infrastructure, ideal sunlight, and wind conditions for the training and test flights all make Abu Dhabi a natural choice as host city for SI2 [Solar Impulse 2] from a technical perspective. But there is much more to the decision.

“When you add the role Abu Dhabi plays as a leading player in the advancement of renewables and clean technology, then the synergy becomes even clearer.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to showcase our commitment to developing clean energy globally, while also inspiring people across the UAE.”

The 12-leg journey will cover 32,000 kilometres, but specifics depend on weather conditions, however.

“Although this plane cannot fly in bad weather, it has no fuel limitations. The strategy will be different,” said Mr Borschberg.

The team will be in a flight control room, and will adjust the flight path to avoid poor conditions. At times it may be necessary to backtrack or avoid flying for a day due to potential risks.

“I am extremely excited, cautious and busy,” said Mr Borschberg. “We started 11 years ago and finally it’s very close. It’s somehow difficult to realise. We want to make sure that we do everything right. There is a lot of preparation still to do.”

When the team arrives in mid-January it will start testing with Masdar before embarking on its journey.