The idea of Solar Impulse came to Bertrand Piccard after the first round-the-world balloon flight with Brian Jones in 1999. It was the realisation that a lack of fuel could have caused his adventure to fail that led him to promise to circumnavigate the world a second time, this time without fuel or polluting emissions. In 2002, Piccard criss-crossed the US to find the status of research in solar energy and to team with solar aviation specialists. Everyone encouraged him to take up the challenge to fly a manned aircraft around the world. Piccard then turned to the Ecole Polytechnique for a feasibility study and teamed up with engineer and fighter pilot Andre Borschberg, who brought the entrepreneur’s vision into the project. The company, Solar Impulse SA, was officially born on June 29, 2004. Piccard, a psychiatrist, explorer, initiator and chairman of Solar Impulse, in a candid chat with Sohini Das shares his vision for the future and what’s next after the current world tour. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about the beginning…
When you have a dream, in the beginning you should not ask yourself if this is achievable or not. Otherwise, you are stuck. And, most people who have dreams don’t believe in it and they are unhappy their entire lives. I spoke about it to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and they decided to run a feasibility study. They appointed Andre to lead the technical feasibility study, and that’s how we met. We had to build a plane bigger than the Jumbo Jet 747 in terms of wingspan and lighter than a mini-van. Then we started to see how much energy we needed, motors, batteries, solar cells and so on. And, we went to the aviation world and said, ‘Can you help us?’ and they said it was impossible.
We decided, let’s go for it with our own team, own partners, outside the world of aviation. We believed it could be done, but we were not sure that it could be done. Now, we have an airplane, but we have not yet done a flight around the world. It’s an attempt. We have to be very very modest because it is very difficult.
Solar Impulse can stay in air forever. Is that true?
The plane can stay in the air forever, because it charges the battery during the day flight in order to fly through the night on the batteries until the next sunrise. That was my dream, perpetual flight. No fuel, forever airborne. It has to come down for the human challenge.
How has been the experience inside the cockpit?
The reality is the spread of temperatures inside the cockpit is between +20 to -40 degrees Celsius. It’s a very small cockpit, and you can sleep only for 20 minutes at a time. Because you have to check if everything is going alright. The autopilot can only keep the wings levelled, it cannot control the navigation through GPS. Every day, its like climbing to the top of Mount Everest and going down to the sea level. We have oxygen masks on for 12 hours a day. So, the reality is pretty difficult. If you complain, it’s a nightmare, or you can just see it as an experience. When we get out of our zone of comfort, our mind works much better. We have more performance, more awareness. This is what I like in adventure. It’s almost like meditation in action.
Do you plan to write a memoir after you finish the trip?
Yes, very much. I wrote a book in French, published about four months ago, about what I came to know about the psychology of life. I should find an Indian publisher.
How can Solar Impulse have an impact on the issue of climate change?
Solar Impulse, in terms of changing paradigm, has huge implications. The paradigm today is climate change, big problem, very expensive and a conflict between rich countries and emerging countries about responsibilities and measures to take. This will lead us nowhere. Climate change is a fantastic opportunity to develop cleaner technologies. If we develop cleaner technologies and we start to save energy, already today we can divide by the energy consumption of the world by two. Older technologies will be replaced by new ones. This is stimulation for the industry, the economy, for finance, creating jobs, makings profits.
What has been the feedback from the sponsors? Are they willing to keep on investing in the dream?
After the flight around the world, I think they will stay with us. They are already a little sad, that it’s going to come to an end in five months, and they are asking us, what next? One interesting spin-off would be high altitude telecommunication platforms, pseudo-satellites. Solar Impulse, but no pilot, no instruments, no oxygen, only Wi-Fi and GSM, and they circle above the city 30 km above in the sky, disturbing nobody. It replaces satellite for much cheaper.
How much cheaper could this be?
It’s much cheaper. It is too early to give out any figure. But, there is already a company in India, Aditya Birla Group, which said that it could be of interest to them. Exactly, the type of thing that we can do together. We have all the knowledge to develop a prototype. So, what we are basically looking at is a company that would take over after the first prototype. We would show them how to do, and then they would do the commercialisation. It’s under copyright. It’s a know-how, nobody really knows how we did it. So, the knowledge is a big value.