The Solar Impulse 2 is an aircraft powered entirely by the sun. If that sounds bold, it’s also flying around the world to prove solar is a viable technology for aircraft and to test out manned solar flight across the planet. And after a series of scares, it’s finally in the United States.
The Solar Impulse 2 left Abu Dhabi in March of last year, and it was supposed to be back there by August. As you might have guessed from a quick look at the calendar, it hasn’t exactly been an easy flight. A mix of bad weather and damage that required custom parts has meant the flight has gone from five legs over five months to 13 legs over more than a year so far. Along the way, however, it set the record for longest solo flight. And Solar Impulse is down to the home stretch; it just needs to cross America, head over the Atlantic to Europe, and fly to Abu Dhabi.
It’s impressive on its own, of course; nobody expected a solar aircraft to get this far, although the relatively slow speeds of 37 mph to 87 mph make this more like driving a car across the ocean than taking a flight. But it’s also important for exploring how to make solar flight an everyday idea. The Solar Impulse is a testbed for what works and what might go wrong for solar-powered flight technologies. While you won’t see a 747 taking off with just the power of the sun behind it anytime soon, you might, for example, see them use solar cells to power in-cabin systems during the day and drive down fuel use, something both airlines and the environment would be happy to see.
The next leg will launch as soon as the craft is checked and the weather conditions are cleared. So keep an eye out; the future of flight might be passing overhead.