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Transportation Power Science Technology

Solar-Powered Plane Makes Runway Debut 120

Posted by timothy
from the endless-summer dept.
MikeChino writes "The much-hyped Solar Impulse airplane just completed its first runway test, paving the way for a 20-to-25-day trip around the world next year. Conceived by Bertrand Piccard, the single-pilot plane successfully used its four solar powered motors to taxi around the runway. If all goes according to plan the plane will be able to fly day and night without fuel, signaling a bright future for solar-powered flight."
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Solar-Powered Plane Makes Runway Debut

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  • Well, a plane is just a flying car after all...
    • by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @07:41AM (#30211918) Journal

      Well, a plane is just a flying car after all...

      Actually, a car is a badly designed plane. Just try driving one off a cliff, and you'll see what I mean.

      • by bandmassa (951387)
        Photo-voltaic solar is a deader end than dead dinosaur oil. While everybody runs around calling silicon the most abundant material on earth, they're forgetting that the chemicals which turn silicon from an almost perfect insulator into a photovoltaic semiconductor are some of the rarest and the solar indistries are heavily dependent on the aluminium and oil industries for these elements.
    • by c6gunner (950153)

      Implications for solar car races? None. You may as well look at a sail-boat and ask "what are the implications for powerboats?". An aircraft with a large enough wing-span can stay airborne for days on end just by gliding, whereas cars tend not to move much without an engine.

  • Better site? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by tjstork (137384)

    Kinda interesting they didn't have the dimensions of the solar plane readily available. From the pictures it looks like the wingspan is an easy 100 feet to carry how much, one guy? Wonder how big the wings would be to carry 200 passengers, oh, and where would get the energy to carry them at 600mph? Seems to me solar and flight are fundamentally at odds simply because you need vast surface area to get the energy to reach high speeds...but then, maybe it can work, almost like you optimize

    solar powered plan

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nacturation (646836) *

      would have to factor in wind resistance from the giant wings, but that's cross sectional area, I thought, that causes drag, so if you made the wings really thin...

      If the weight ratio is too great, you could simply have two planes and suspend the pilot on a line between the wings.

      • by jimicus (737525) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @05:14AM (#30211154)

        If the weight ratio is too great, you could simply have two planes and suspend the pilot on a line between the wings.

        Probably necessary in more northern latitudes such as Europe, but in Africa I reckon one plane could easily carry the pilot.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)

          You'd need some place to put the solar panels, which will also put a lower limit on wing surface, because there's a minimum amount of energy you'll need.

          Then due to this plane not exactly flying at 900 kph, you'd need short wings to prevent it from stalling due to the wind movement created by flying over a cow that's thinking about farting.

          So you need a minimum wing surface, and you need a relatively short wing. Your only choice is going wide.

          Now add to that that the maximum weight of the plane is obviously

          • Here's an image gallery of the plane : http://www.solvay.com/services/imagegallery/solar/airplane/0,,77566-2-0,00.htm [solvay.com]

            A more technical gallery : http://www.solvay.com/services/imagegallery/solar/technicalaspects/0,,77567-2-0,00.htm [solvay.com]

            The plane is called "solar impulse", btw, and it's Belgian.

          • Sunrise [wikipedia.org]
            The 27 lb (12 kg) unmanned AstroFlight Sunrise, the result of an ARPA contract, made the world's first solar-powered flight from Bicycle Lake, a dry lakebed on the Fort Irwin Military Reservation, on 4 November 1974. The improved Sunrise II flew on 27 September 1975 at Nellis AFB.[3][4][5]

            Sunseeker
            In 1990 the solar powered airplane Sunseeker successfully flew across the USA, piloted by Eric Raymond.[9] It used a small battery charged by solar cells on the wing to drive a propeller for takeoff, and t

          • They don't have blimps where you come from? (I almost feel bad after how well worked your idea is... sorry)
          • And the military applications are equally great. Want to attack a country ? How about a permanent rocket launch basis in the sky that does not ever need to come down ?

            Have you noticed that powerful lasers are becoming cheaper and easier all the time, that radars are getting better and better all the time? We're getting to a point where anyone with a few grand will be able to shoot down one of these robot chumpies, and why the hell not, they are robots, and noone gave anyone permission for them to spy on me

        • by natehoy (1608657)

          But how would the pilot grip it? By the hull?

      • by tjstork (137384)

        If the weight ratio is too great, you could simply have two planes and suspend the pilot on a line between the wings.

        Or you could always go with a solar powered balloon plane.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by jamesh (87723)

        suspend the pilot on a line between the wings.

        What? Held under the dorsal guiding struts?

      • If the weight ratio is too great, you could simply have two planes and suspend the pilot on a line between the wings.

        You just need some additional thrust... http://inventorspot.com/articles/solar_powered_fan_hat_wearable_gadget_looks_and_feels_cool_24822 [inventorspot.com]

    • the diagram in the link has the dimensions

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8367214.stm
    • Kinda interesting they didn't have the dimensions of the solar plane readily available. From the pictures it looks like the wingspan is an easy 100 feet to carry how much, one guy? Wonder how big the wings would be to carry 200 passengers, oh, and where would get the energy to carry them at 600mph? Seems to me solar and flight are fundamentally at odds simply because you need vast surface area to get the energy to reach high speeds...but then, maybe it can work, almost like you optimize

      solar powered plane energy = kw * wing area meters ^ 2 - kw * motor * mass * velocity ^ 2.
      and
      mass = wing density * wing area meters ^ 2

      would have to factor in wind resistance from the giant wings, but that's cross sectional area, I thought, that causes drag, so if you made the wings really thin...

      I half agree with you. Half. None of our grandchildren are ever going to fly at 600 miles per hour. There isn't enough energy, and they won't be able to afford to use it. We're burning all the cheap energy there's ever going to be, right now. A plane which could provide practical flight at one hundred miles an hour and that they could afford to use might be useful to them. I'm sceptical, though, about whether this is the right way to go about providing that - hydrogen from electrolysis of seawater looks to

      • by Firethorn (177587)

        I half agree with you. Half. None of our grandchildren are ever going to fly at 600 miles per hour. There isn't enough energy, and they won't be able to afford to use it.

        I disagree. If they get a serious energy crunch, they'll adjust. I don't think high speed flight is going away, it might get a tad rarer for the population, but it's not going away.

        Big, mostly full planes going 600 odd mph for a couple thousand miles or more are actually very fuel efficient - especially when you're looking at overseas travel and saving weeks on a cruise liner.

        They're also experimenting with bio-jet fuel, they're testing it right now for B-52s.

        For the land, high speed rail, a good mesh of

      • by c6gunner (950153)

        I half agree with you. Half. None of our grandchildren are ever going to fly at 600 miles per hour. There isn't enough energy, and they won't be able to afford to use it. We're burning all the cheap energy there's ever going to be, right now.

        I'm sure someone made the same argument back when horse-drawn carriages were the height of technology. Fortunately, "cheap" is a relative term. As our technology improves, things which would have been astronomically expensive - or completely impossible - a hundred years become commonplace today. The same will happen for your grandchildren. We have enough conventional oil stores to last for decades. We have enough oil sands and shales to last for centuries. Even if we just stick to conventional energy

    • Insightfull my ass (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @07:18AM (#30211744) Journal

      This guy isn't insightful, he is a twit.

      Not all planes are passenger planes. This plane would be perfect for unmanned or long range observation. Carrying all your fuel aboard becomes incredibly expensive the longer your range has to be. This plane solves that by refueling constantly while inflight.

      Insightful? No, short-sighted, yes.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is all technically exciting, but they'll have to find a business use for this.

      it looks like the plane can carry just a few kilos of cargo, and would go around the world in around a month, not too good for transport!

      Maybe it would be good for earth observation, cheaper than satellites, more detailed images.
      And then maybe an unmaned version.

      It will be interesting to follow

      • There's a huge market for something like this being able to launch 20 or 30 of these in a conflict area would be a great advantage. Just imagine being able to back track an insurgent's movements for 2 or 3 days because you have a whole city covered with planes. Weapons could even be carried and the only time the planes wold have to land is if they were out of ammo or needed matience these are the next evoloution in UAVs.
    • Well, you forgot that velocity = const / wing area. Now you could optimize, but don't bother, the result will just tell you to get a pair of infinitely sized wings flying at 0km/h.
    • You left out one important part of your 200 passenger plane. Strength of materials to enable any reasonable speeds. I would be curious just how calm of air this solar plane needs to get airborne and stay there without being being damaged. Then there is the whole issue of flying for that many days and not encountering turbulent weather.

      Planes already use exotic materials to weigh as little as financially reasons allow. While this solar plane is a neat concept its nothing more than that. I was more inter

    • I see your point on this, but there are lots of important/cool potential applications for this that are not centered on carrying passengers.

      I'm thinking surveillance aircraft capable of near continuous operation, or replacing the Goodyear blimp. You could even equip a plane like this as a cell tower, and be able to shift the hardware to cover areas with high call volume, like during a local emergency.

      Right now, this tech doesn't seem capable of transporting cargo or people. However there are lots of reason

    • Re:Better site? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by elashish14 (1302231) <profcalc4@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:48AM (#30212968)

      Relax, it's just for research. They're not saying that it'll completely replace all airplane technology, or even that it will ever displace current jet fuel models - it's just something that's worthy of being looked into. Instead of asking ourselves if we can use this to fuel a jumbo jet, let's start with a simpler engineering problem and see if it's practical for powering, say, a 4-passenger private vehicle. Or maybe an unmanned drone for non-passenger purposes.

      What is important about this is that if they can show that it's practical and stimulate some interest, then maybe they can get more funding and attention. That's why they have these prototype designs and demos - not cause they think it'll solve every energy-related problem the world faces. Sure, not every new, 'promising' technology ever turns out to be as great as we expect them to be; but if they weren't labeled as such, those few that actually have a chance of being viable would never receive attention.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Kinda interesting they didn't have the dimensions of the solar plane readily available.

      You didn't look very hard, did you?

      TECHNCIAL DATASHEET
      Wingspan: 63,40 m
      Length: 21,85 m
      Height: 6,40 m
      Weight: 1 600 Kg
      Motor power: 4 x 10 HP electric engines
      Solar cells: 11 628 (10 748 on the wing, 880 on the horizontal stabilizer)
      Average flying speed: 70 km/h
      Take-off speed: 35 km/h
      Maximum altitude: 8 500 m (27 900 ft)

      http://www.solarimpulse.com/en/documents/challenge_solar.php?lang=en&group=challenge [solarimpulse.com]

  • Zeppelin (Score:3, Interesting)

    by seifried (12921) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @04:31AM (#30211032) Homepage
    Da*nit, I want to get on a Zeppelin in say Toronto and spend 2-3 days cruising leisurely (which a nice train style sleeper-cabin, restaurant and bar, free wi-fi of course) to Europe, ideally with service running on an a day that is modified in length in order to reduce jet lag once I get there. If travel were civilized spending more time doing it would be ok. Case in point: Life lessons from an ad man [ted.com].
    • Zeppelin is actually a type of airship... And the original designers are still in existence... making airships. Feel free to invest...
  • So can we get our flying cars already?
  • by BikeHelmet (1437881) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @04:34AM (#30211046) Journal

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oNHD41MLMk [youtube.com]

    But a manned plane would be pretty neat. Hope it has enough batteries for the night - the solar UAV does a lot of gliding, which might not be possible with a heavier aircraft actually attempting to get somewhere.

  • Interesting that on their web site [solarimpulse.com] the wingspan is 63,40 m but mass is 1 600 Kg. I suppose they can afford less confusion with the mass of their aircraft.

    • Re:Commas (Score:5, Informative)

      by Marcika (1003625) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @05:24AM (#30211188)
      The decimal comma is an SI standard as much as the decimal point and its usage is preferred (according to Wikipedia) in Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, French Canada, Romania, Sweden and much of the rest of Europe.

      Have a look where the design team and the sponsors come from.

      • by Zouden (232738)

        The rationale is that a speck of ink (or other unwanted mark) is less likely to be confused for a comma than it is for a point.

        Since the thousands separator is merely decoration, it doesn't matter if you mistake a speck of ink for one. But the decimal separator is crucial, so it should be as unambiguous as possible.

        A comma is also bigger than a point, so it's easier to read for people with poor eyesight. It makes the difference between a 1,5ml dose of a drug and a 15ml dose.

        • by hellop2 (1271166)
          Yes, but yelling "One comma two one jiggawatts!" just doesn't pack the same punch.
        • But the decimal separator is crucial, so it should be as unambiguous as possible.

          But with the rise of the spreadsheet, something else became ambiguous: decimal separator vs. the field separator in CSV files [wikipedia.org]. (I prefer tabs, but some of our service providers prefer commas; it's a good thing I live in Anglophonia.)

          • Use quoted fields to hold numbers if they use the comma as the decimal separator. It’s no different from having “Last, First” fields.

            • Some CSV parsers will treat quoted inputs as text, not as numbers.
              • Then I’m betting they’d also consider the dot to be the decimal separator. If they’re correctly written, it will still be displayed using the regional settings for numbers, although that’s more of a crap-shoot.

        • I'm not sure about that, multiplying decimals seems the most obvious problem to me although that may also be a factor (cha-ching!). "6,02.10^23" is perfectly unambiguous while "6.02-" well, you get the point (Har har). There's some crazy folks who do "6.02×10^23" or "6.02*10^23". Those look sort of lame to me among properly formatted calculations, though. That said I wouldn't mind if everyone switched to the asterisk as the primary multiplication symbol, because hey, why not?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        Yes I realised my mistake about one ohnosecond after I posted that.

      • Re:Commas (Score:4, Funny)

        by cvd6262 (180823) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @11:05AM (#30213818)

        The decimal comma is an SI standard as much as the decimal point and its usage is preferred (according to Wikipedia) in Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, French Canada, Romania, Sweden and much of the rest of Europe.

        I was in the Louvre looking at the old French crown jewels when I heard someone read the display: "Fifty-four THOUSAND carats!?!?! WOW!"

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DNS-and-BIND (461968)
        The regular decimal is an SI standard and its usage is preferred in China, India, Russia, America, Canada (the unimportant, non-French part), Mexico, all of South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand...my fingers are getting tired. But hey, you've got Finland *and* Estonia on your standard. Good show!

        You'd figure the holier-than-thou would be the ones to find out what the world's standard was and slavishly adhere to it, proclaiming all the while how superior it is, and how anyone who clings to an outda

  • we definitely need more and more of that kind of solutions, not sure though if such solar planes will make it info mainstream
  • Combine this with the predator [wikipedia.org] and we are soo.... soo.. **
  • .. and my brain made these funny images of a runaway plane not quite ready for commitment..
  • ...always on the forefront of exploration!!! ;-)

  • Let's do the math.

    61 meters wingspan, as an estimate, let's say 6 meters width. That's 360, let's say 400 square meters counting the tail surfaces.
    At 15% efficiency and no clouds at high noon , that's about 60 kilowatts, say almost 100 horses. But if you subtract for unavoidable factors
    like non high-noon, clouds, battery chemistry, and night, say 40% x 70% x 75% x 40%, we're down to about TWELVE average horsepower trying to lift 3500 pounds.
    By comparison, your basic very fragile ultra-light plane that c

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ThosLives (686517)
      Well, this solar plane isn't so much a plane as it is a motor glider given the wingspan and aspect ratio. The motor is just enough to get it off the ground and help gain altitude when thermals and other updraft conditions are not present. Gliders seem to fly just fine and they have a zero power-to-weight ratio, so that argument is a bit naive. Gliders can also be fairly fast given the right conditions: there are high-performance glider races where the gliders fly around 200 knots over a course of about 18
    • by fnj (64210)

      Yeah, right, chief, they are idiots and you are real smart. Did you ever hear about a thing called lift to drag ratio? An enormous, extremely high aspect ratio wing has a lift to drag ratio that is out of sight. And power necessary to overcome parasitic drag is proportional to the cube of the speed. This thing flies at a hair over 20 mph near the surface and peaks at about 45 mph at high altitude where the lower air density cuts the drag.

      Oh, and if you don't want clouds in the way you, like, fly over th

      • L/D has nothing to do with it.

        Do the math-- 3500 pounds and 12 horsepower -- what's going to be the absolute best rate of climb possible with no friction---? under 100 FPM.

        Add a little unavoidable drag and you have a really miserable flying machine.

        Also if it takes off at 20MPH, then that implies it can't take off if the wind is more than 6MPH or so in any direction.

        A miserable and very dangerous flying machine.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_plane [wikipedia.org]

      all the people that have done it in past must be cheating.

      • Perhaps you should consider the difference between a plane that can briefly just barely get off the ground, under optimal sun and wind conditions, carrying no usable payload, versus a plane that can takeoff safely in average or marginal weather, and stay up and get somewhere say against a mild wind, and climb at more than 100FPM, and not stall with a mild tail or crosswind, or breakup in turbulence, and carry a useful payload, perhaps even be human-rated, and do so economically, year after year.

  • This one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Challenger [wikipedia.org] plus he was involved with the NASA one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helios_Prototype [wikipedia.org]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_B._MacCready [wikipedia.org] Hmm, looks like he died a few years ago. (Note corelation =/= causation. His working on a solar plane probably had nothing to do with his death.)
  • ...that they're taking off on a cloudy day on the video? Maybe that's why it was only a runway test ;^)

  • Just how does it get power at night? Presummably on a clouded day, it can get power once it get above the clouds, but its batteries can't be good for very long in the advent of lose of sun light. Planes really need a constraited power source, and until wehttp://www.feeddistiller.com/blogs/Hydrogen%20Power/feed.html can do better than chemical, fuel cells or combustion seem best to me. For power/weight ratio, hydrogen powered planes, must be best, with methane or boranes beating all the other hydrogen carbon
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Commercial fuel cells have been ten years away for more than ten years, they're in the same category as supercapacitors, show me the fucking product. Hydrogen has crap energy density and it would make more sense to just use biodiesel in current turbine designs than to ever move to hydrogen; turbines are wicked efficient, and making biodiesel is more efficient than cracking hydrogen by any means we now have available. In fact, most of the nation's hydrogen is cracked from Natural Gas, making it a petro-fuel

      • Hydrogen is an energy transmission device, it's never been a SOURCE of energy. We can't "mine" hydrogen or produce it out of nothing.

        You could make the argument that hydrogen electrolysis would work for solar or wind farms to store generated energy, but I have no idea how efficient that would be. I'd imagine it would need to be on a very large scale to be worth it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by drinkypoo (153816)

          Hydrogen is an energy transmission device, it's never been a SOURCE of energy. We can't "mine" hydrogen or produce it out of nothing.

          Uh, yeah, that's what I said, asshole. We lose around 5% of our electrical power in transmission in this country (including conversion related to transmission.) The efficiency of hydrogen through electrolysis is under 60% in basically all real-world cases. Can you see why Hydrogen is fucking stupid, given that it is prohibitively expensive (in terms of energy cost) to make, and that the other forms of hydrogen ARE in effect mined, since again we make most of it from Natural Gas? Which, BTW, comes from wells

          • Uh, forget to take your fucking medications today, dipshit? Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.

            I never said hydrogen was the best solution to ANYTHING, only pointed out that cracking it from hydrocarbons isn't the only place it could be obtained.

            Maglev flywheels? Hydrogen is an unmitigated boondoggle and you're talking about maglev flywheels? Did you manage to find a high temperature superconductor bearing, or do you want a cryogenics plant to go with your magic pink unicorn? To quote from an inter
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by icebrain (944107)

        Actually, hydrogen has very good energy density by mass (the best of any chemical fuel). By volume, it's very poor. That's why you see hydrogen used as a fuel for rockets (where mass matters much more than volume), but not aircraft. A commercial airliner running on hydrogen would require a huge insulated tank that would add lots of weight and drag; you can't just tuck the fuel into the wings like you can with jet-A. It may become usable for small aircraft, but I don't think you'll see it used for anythi

    • So none of you guys actually read TFA, did you?

      The whole point of this exercise is to build a plane that =can= fly through the night. It does this by storing energy accumulated during the day, both in batteries (chemical) and as altitude (kinetic). Climb during the day, descend (slowly) at night. It's designed to fly at 20 to 30 thousand feet, so clouds aren't an issue. It has four 10 HP electric motors, which will average 8 HP each during flight. It flies at around 40 MPH.

  • No Red Eyes.

  • Great, it's a plane that can fly using solar power. Due to it's current design, in itself is it very useful? Maybe recreationally. Commercially? Naw. However it does open the path for better solar technolgies, including for cars, homes and other devices. If all goes well it proves that solar technology can be a very viable and renewable resource that's worth investing in, even if it never makes it to huge commercial planes (That might not always be the main method of travel at large distances down the road
  • Here is my design: http://www.anticharisma.com/zeplinaeroplane.html [anticharisma.com] It is a better idea than anything I've seen the big boys come up with. If only they'd listen to me huh?
    • If we make simple safe cheap aircraft then we eliminate the bad things that detract from the freedom that aviation should offer to humanity.
  • Impulse power? Piccard? Surely I'm dreaming: next they'll be using subspace arrays to communicate with the thing!!! I'd had a rather strong Gin & Tonic or 2, but I had the impression "Galaxy Quest" was just a comedy... don't tell me G&T disguised the fact that is was a genuine "historical document" after all?

    Oh well, look on the bright side! If my great-great-great-great grandchildren serve in Starfleet, at least one of them will have a high probability of seeing Kirk getting his shirt torn off. B

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