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The Engineer Q&A: Solar Impulse

Your chance to put questions to the team behind the aircraft that will make the world’s first round-the-world journey using only solar power.

Next year will see the culmination of one of the most impressive feats of engineering so far this century: the first attempt to fly all the way around the world (in stages) in an entirely solar-powered aircraft.

Solar Impulse 2, which was unveiled to the world last month, is 2.3-tonne carbon-fibre aircraft with that uses over 17,000 solar cells and four brushless electric motors to fly at speeds of up to 140kph (87mph).

Four batteries enable the craft, which has a wingspan of 72m, to simultaneously fly and store power during the day so it can keep flying at night.

This will allow its solo pilot to complete journeys of up to five consecutive days at a time and complete the stages of the voyage that will take it over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

For our latest reader Q&A article, we’ve lined up the team at Solar Impulse, which is led by engineer André Borschberg and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, to answer your questions on the challenges involved in designing and building the craft – and what’s in store for the pair when they take to the skies to pilot it.

We’d also like to invite questions about how the technology developed for solar impulse might find uses elsewhere, in the aerospace, energy or any other sector of engineering, and we’ll have relevant experts give their views in response.

Questions are now closed. We’ll publish the answers in the June issue of The Engineer magazine, as well as here on the website.

Readers' comments (7)

  • 1. How many power back-up systems does the plane have?

    2. When will you build the first solar-powered commercial airliner?

    3. When do you think we will reach the inflection point between non-renewable (dirty) to renewable (clean) sources of energy? What do you think is the major hurdle for this necessary transition?

    I have great admiration for your work and your team. Thank you for reminding us, the less adventurous and less courageous, that imagination, engineering and pioneers like you will lead humanity to a sustainable path.

    Have a safe and wonderful flight!

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  • If not a traded secret(!), would be interested to know a bit more about the solar cells you are using, performance, specifications etc. Are they specially engineered to be light/flexible etc. Are they commercially available?

    Good luck with the flight - the spirit of Phileas Fogg lives on!

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  • Solar Impulse’s solo pilot will complete journeys of up to five consecutive days at a time?

    I’m sure it must be very thrilling and time consuming piloting the aircraft but what, if anything, is in the cockpit to keep the pilot stimulated and does this add a weight penalty to the aircraft?

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  • What is the battery technology and power capacity?
    What is the maximum payload?
    Does it have GPS and autopilot?
    Is it awesome?
    Bon voyage!

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  • What were the biggest changes between the new craft and the first one?

    Were there any specific things you did to remove weight from the design?

    And a non-engineering question: What do you expect the biggest challenges to be for the pilots?

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  • What will the pilot do to avoid blood clots forming in extremities – due to prolonged inactivity?
    What types of food – calories/day and composition – will the pilot consume to maintain proper bodily functions?

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  • At what speed and altitude will the plane cruise?
    Will you modify the route in response to weather conditions - avoiding headwinds and high cloud?

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