Engineering prizes reveal how human spirit drives technology

Senior reporter

The round-the-world solar flight attempt is the latest in a new era of technology competitions and challenges that could have a major impact on our world.

Imagine spending five days and nights alone suspended 27,000 feet above the ocean inside the unheated, unpressurised cockpit of an experimental aircraft, sat with an oxygen pipe up your nose in a seat that’s also your bed and your toilet.

That’s what awaits André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, the pilots and founders of the Solar Impulse project to fly around the world using only the power of the sun. It’s no wonder that Borschberg this week said it would be ‘as much a human as a technological feat’, as he unveiled the plane he and his partner would take to the skies in.

Engineering is as much about creativity, drive and ambition as it is about technical skill and scientific knowledge. So it’s little wonder that prizes, races and a human determination to conquer goals because they are there has played so important a role in the progress of technology. 

Around the turn of the last century, competitions that combined ingenuity and spirit were relatively common and key in helping push the development of both the aeroplane and automobile. Road races (such as this one covered by The Engineer) helped bring the petrol-fuelled internal combustion engine to the forefront of automotive engineering.

Prizes offered by the Daily Mail led to the first cross-Channel and non-stop trans-Atlantic flights. The Schneider Trophy spurred innovations that influenced the design of several of the key fighter planes of World War Two including the Spitfire.

As the 20th century progressed, war itself – and international political rivalry more generally – seemed to take over as the primary driver behind the world’s most important technological innovations: nuclear power, the jet engine, computers, space travel, the internet.

But as the global conflicts of the last hundred years have subsided, or at least cooled, prizes and record attempts appear to be coming to the fore once more. The need to address man-made climate change might be the ultimate goal of much of the focus of engineering today, but competitions are helping to focus attention on specific problems, raise the profile of key technologies and inspire people to come up with new ideas.

The Solar Impulse round-the-world flight attempt could produce drive the development of new aerospace and energy technologies.

As well as the unveiling of Solar Impulse 2, this week saw the launch of a new global competition for zero-emission vehicles: a race inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days that in 2016 will see competitors travel 40,000km (25,000 miles) between eight cities across four continents.

Speaking at the Reform Club in London (where Verne’s race also began), Frank Manders, CEO of 80 Day Race, said: ‘When promoting sustainable mobility it is important to capture the hearts and minds of the public. A legendary race, a test of man and machine, has proven over time to be an excellent method to inspire people. We go back to the pioneering spirit of the early day adventurers who showed the world what can be done with new mobility solutions, paving the road for a sustainable future.’

This isn’t even the first such event of this kind. Louis Palmer, the Swiss man who was the first to drive around the world in a solar-powered car, launched the Zero Emissions Race in 2010, which saw four electric vehicles travel 30,000km (19,000 miles) in 80 driving days.

The Bloodhound project may have been conceived as a way to promote engineering to schoolchildren but there’s no doubt its attempt to produce a 1000mph car will lead to some amazing feats of engineering.

And, of course, you have the X Prizes, the billionaire-funded competitions to produce a range of new technologies from medical ‘tricorders’ to methods of cleaning up oil spills, and which have already spurred the creation of commercial spaceflight.

Such competitions on their own may not lead directly to new inventions that change the world. It’s hard to imagine we’ll be riding in solar-powered cars and planes any time soon. (The Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne looks set to be an exception to this rule as its successor ship could well start operating for Virgin Galactic next year.)

But these events could well have an important impact in driving different technology elements forward. Solar Impulse 2, for example, could influence lightweight aerospace structures and solar panels, or even help produce solar-powered drones that can stay in the sky indefinitely.

Hopefully, at least, we won’t have to start flying in unheated cockpits while sat on a commode.