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Transportation Technology

Solar Powered Plane Completes Cross-Country Flight 105

Posted by samzenpus
from the good-landing dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The Solar Impulse, a solar powered aircraft, landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport completing its historic cross-country flight. From the article: 'The flight plan for the revolutionary plane, powered by some 11,000 solar cells on its oversized wings, had called for it to pass the Statue of Liberty before landing early Sunday at New York. But an unexpected tear discovered on the left wing of the aircraft Saturday afternoon forced officials to scuttle the fly-by and proceed directly to JFK for a landing three hours earlier than scheduled. Pilot Andre Borschberg trumpeted the milestone of a plane capable of flying during the day and night, powered by solar energy, crossing the U.S. without the use of fuel.'"
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Solar Powered Plane Completes Cross-Country Flight

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  • But is this something that we can convert into a practical design for transporting goods or people cross country or is it just a gimmicky air craft that while nifty will likely never see any wide scale use beyond hobbyists, a la ultralights.
    • by Motard (1553251)

      It probably won't be shooting down MIGs or offering first class passenger service any time soon, but a device that could travel to anywhere in the US with no expense beyond the purchase price could well find a niche.

    • by amiga3D (567632) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:29PM (#44211711)

      I doubt it'll be useful soon but down the road who knows. It was a few decades between the wright brothers and the age of the Airliner. Time and technology march on.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      Drones. A weapon armed with a couple of Hellfire missiles that can stay in the air 24/7, ready to blow up a wedding party at a moment's notice. Could also be useful for spying - cloud cover can scupper satellites.

      • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:44PM (#44211799)

        Could also be useful for spying - cloud cover can scupper satellites.

        So you send a solar-powered drone to look below the cloud cover? Sounds logical.

        • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

          Cloud cover != pitch dark. The panels still work. It could always fly high and then come down for a while if required.

        • The thing can fly at night, I'm pretty sure it can deal with a few clouds.
        • by Motard (1553251)

          But imagine if we could develop a solar powered aircraft that could fly though the night...

          (tap, tap)

          Huh?

          Oh, that's what this story is about?

          Well then, nevermind.

          • There's a world of difference between "being able to fly a few hours at night when you're already aloft and using all tricks up the glider's sleeve" and "taking off, gaining altitude, navigating with a purpose to a specific target and staying over it when there's a prospect of overcast for a few whole days". It's the difference between a geeky experimental toy and mil-spec equipment that has to work no matter what the conditions are. Especially if you have to rely on the availability of the info the drone p
            • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

              What an unfortunate attitude. When the Wright Flyer was demonstrated many militaries couldn't see what possible practical application the technology could ever have or how it could ever be advanced to a useful point. Same things happened with submarines and air-to-air missiles.

              The first version usually isn't perfect, just like the first electric cars had some pretty major limitations. Even now some people can't accept that Tesla has made one that is absolutely fine for 95% of the population. It seems to be

              • by khallow (566160)
                I think it more has to do with the ongoing superior energy density of hydrocarbons. Keep in mind that a) most portable energy storage mechanisms are limited by something proportional to chemical energy density, even physical energy storage methods like flywheels and b) hydrocarbons have the unusual property that they react with atmosphere and dump the reaction byproducts into atmosphere. There's a lot of mass saving that one can't get from batteries.
              • Actually, your comment neatly demonstrates the problem here. That is, even taking into consideration the fact that powering cars with electricity does have a whole load of benefits, the fact remains that the Wright brothers were flying their first flyer in exactly the period that was the heyday of electrical cars. So, fast forward one century, and unlike the Wrights' Flyer, electrical cars haven't exactly gotten off the ground, pardon the pun. We have one company that builds electrical cars that would be te

                • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

                  That's a poor extension of my analogy. Internal combustion engines became popular because they were cheap due to offloading the cost of the pollution to other people. That offloading eventually started to fail as they became popular and everyone started suffering from the effects of pollution, which actually were pretty bad in some areas by the time it was just getting started thanks to to coal burning.

                  Oh, I'm pretty sure that in one more century, we'll have it down pat... There's still a wide chasm between lab prototypes and stuff useful and economical enough for daily use.

                  This is exactly what I'm talking about. You can buy a Tesla Model S today that is economical and useful fo

            • There is a world of difference between flying at night and your scenario. The reason is that your scenario was written to be intentionally constructed to be outside of the CONOPS for a solar-powered drone. Just because you can't completely obsolete a device in all scenarios doesn't mean your new device isn't more useful overall. A mule is much more useful for transport over mountainous walking paths than a jeep, but that doesn't make a jeep useless in mountainous terrain.

              You follow up with the statement

    • by gandhi_2 (1108023)

      Pfft. Really.
      I mean, sure they are pushing the technological and engineering boundaries of aviation, photovoltaics, and batteries but come on!
      Where in the heck are you going to put THAT many sammiches to feed the pilot for that long!

    • But is this something that we can convert into a practical design for transporting goods or people cross country

      "Transporting goods or people" are not the only practical uses for aircraft. Other obvious uses for long-loiter-time aircraft are reconnaissance, and relaying communications.

    • by sjames (1099) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:54PM (#44212477) Homepage

      The Wright Flyer wasn't all that practical either. No cargo, no passengers, one pilot, and less than 900 feet traveled.

  • Flying East. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by csumpi (2258986)
    Pilot Andre Borschberg trumpeted the milestone of a plane capable of flying during the day and night, powered by solar energy, crossing the U.S. from West to East without the use of fuel.

    Now let's see how they get back from NYC to SF without the use of fuel.
    • I read your comment and have been trying to understand what the issue is. This plane has flown at night before. It collects more solar energy during daytime flight than it uses for power and stores the remainder in batteries for use during nighttime flight. Even if it couldn't, this aircraft is quite slow so, it wouldn't outrun the sun in an east-to-west flight.
      • Re:Flying East. (Score:4, Informative)

        by chispito (1870390) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:59PM (#44211881)

        I read your comment and have been trying to understand what the issue is. This plane has flown at night before. It collects more solar energy during daytime flight than it uses for power and stores the remainder in batteries for use during nighttime flight. Even if it couldn't, this aircraft is quite slow so, it wouldn't outrun the sun in an east-to-west flight.

        I think he means http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet_stream [wikipedia.org].

        • by Motard (1553251)

          But, assuming that the aircraft is capable of flying from east to west for any distance, isn't this just a question of how long it would take?

          • by fnj (64210)

            Not if the jet stream is blowing over 100 mph and the plane is flying in the jet stream in the opposite direction at just 45 mph. OTOH, the solution is simply not to fly in the jet stream, which is mappable geographically. Also, the plane may not cruise at the same altitude as the jet stream is usually found.

      • by sribe (304414)

        I read your comment and have been trying to understand what the issue is. This plane has flown at night before. It collects more solar energy during daytime flight than it uses for power and stores the remainder in batteries for use during nighttime flight. Even if it couldn't, this aircraft is quite slow so, it wouldn't outrun the sun in an east-to-west flight.

        Prevailing westerly winds? Most of the SF -> NYC trip would have been downwind. Most of an NYC -> SF trip would be upwind.

        • by afidel (530433)

          Normally that would be true but with the weird twist in the jetstream the last few weeks I doubt it was too much help unless they wanted to go over the gulf of mexico and canada.

          • by sribe (304414)

            Normally that would be true but with the weird twist in the jetstream the last few weeks I doubt it was too much help unless they wanted to go over the gulf of mexico and canada.

            This thing was nowhere near the altitude of the jetstream. At low altitude the westerlies still prevail; though of course they vary in strength but with this thing it doesn't take much of a wind to make the difference between getting anywhere and not ;-)

        • by AngryDill (740460)

          So then, have the plane fly east to get to San Francisco! It will get there.

          Granted it'll take a little longer. ;-)

          • by sribe (304414)

            So then, have the plane fly east to get to San Francisco! It will get there.

            Granted it'll take a little longer. ;-)

            No, with this plane, it would take less time than flying west to get there ;-)

      • I think he's referring to the jet stream, which blows from West to East. That's the reason flights to the east are faster than flights to the west. The former benefits from a strong tail wind while the latter has to fly against a head wind. Flying from NYC to SF is going to be a lot more difficult.
  • by CastrTroy (595695) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:15PM (#44211627) Homepage
    Although I realize this is probably a big achievement, I was a little disappointed to find out that this wasn't done in a single flight, but rather many smaller trips with stops in between. I can't believe this wasn't mentioned in the summary, Makes the news sound much more spectacular than it actually was. I really don't think you can count this as a cross-country flight when it had to make multiple stops along the way. Really, it's just a series of short flights in the same direction. It's not like when somebody runs across the country, and we just all assume it wasn't non-stop, with a plane we kind of assume that there wasn't any stops.
    • by gandhi_2 (1108023)

      potty breaks.

    • You are right. There is a fundamental dishonesty and up-selling of this story which in every iteration on the wire conveys an impression of continuous flight. In fact, the link on Google's home page led me to detail that seemed that way. So what is it with the media, press, and politics these days that insists on perpetually bending the truth and making false claims?

      Little lies are total bullshit.

    • by Motard (1553251)

      I sort of agree, but that's another record for another time. In the meantime, some of the pics of it landing at night seem almost to make it worth landing.

      http://images.bwbx.io/cms/2013-05-22/0521-solar-impulse-630x420.jpg [images.bwbx.io]

  • JFK? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jo7hs2 (884069) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:40PM (#44211771) Homepage
    I don't mean to be a whiny spoilsport, but with all the congestion in the airspace around NYC, why did they pick JFK to land a slow-moving and delicate aircraft?

    There are numerous airports at the periphery that are significantly less busy, like Stewart International or Islip/McArthur that could have been used for this event. The need to avoid wake turbulence and make sufficient room in the pattern to accommodate such an aircraft had to be a pain to manage.

    Regardless, excellent achievement in a cool aircraft.
    • by x0ra (1249540)
      Public relation ? It's looking better than any smaller airport.
    • by chispito (1870390)
      Publicity, I'm sure.
    • by Motard (1553251)

      I don't know, but it is surprisingly big. Perhaps it's about hanger space more than runways.

    • I'm not familiar with the peripheral airports, and their capabilities; but this thing has almost exactly the same wingspan as a 777. It doesn't weigh much of anything; and it isn't particularly long; but you'll need a good size runway to put it down.

  • Toy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jklovanc (1603149) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @04:49PM (#44211827)

    It left Phoenix Arizona May 22, 2013 and arrived at JFK 46 days later with a straight line distance of 2200 miles . That would be 47 miles per day. Sure there were a few stopovers but that is a very low daily mileage. Even if they flew one day in ten that is still only 470 miles per day.
    I have a few questions for the makers of Solar Impulse;
    1. How long does it stay on the ground charging the solar cells?
    2. How often do they actually use the electric motor?
    3. What percentage of time are they utilizing natural lift such as thermals and ridge lift?

    I looked at their

    web site

    . It is a great PR site that give little or no technical information of the flight and how they are actually done. I would like to see the following;
    1. Altitude logs for the flights,
    2. Electric motor usage charts.
    3. Battery charge level charts,
    4. Exact track plots of the flights.
    I bet we would have a very different picture of Solar Impulse if they let this information was let out.

    It is my contention that Solar Impulse is a sailplane with enough electrical power to get to altitude and move between natural sources of lift. Conventional sailplanes can do almost everything that Solar Impulse does. The exception being taking off though there are some powered sailplanes that do that too.

    Lets do a speed test to find the limits of the technology rather than a leisurely promotion trip. I am not impressed.

    • by Motard (1553251)

      Interesting questions, but not really on point. This is a demonstration of the current state of the art as they see it. Perhaps an advertisement for attracting further funding. They aren't really targeting requirements developed by you or me. So I feel content to just watch and note the accomplishment.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        It is over hyped as it is a relatively minor accomplishment already possible with thirty year old technology.
        When they make statement like the following they are lying;

        Theirs is the high-flying equivalent of the Tesla electric sports car.

        The Tesla electric sports car is a viable product usable by the average person that does something useful. Solar Impulse is none of those things and is therefore over hyped.

        • by Motard (1553251)

          Why is this a problem for you? If tax dollars are involved, perhaps I might have an issue.

          You quote a sentence beginning with 'Theirs'. That would imply that they didn't write that sentence. Who would actually think they're claiming some sort of equivalence to Tesla Motors?

          • by jklovanc (1603149)

            The contribution to this scam could be going toward valuable research that might actually change something. Wasting millions on a toy is still waste.

            • by Motard (1553251)

              Ok, no G.I. Joe with Kung-Fu Grip for you. Just a big plate of pessimism.

            • by ArsonSmith (13997)

              Actually no it's not, those millions are going into materials and research for people who built the plane or parts of it. The economy is not a fixed size pie. When someone spends millions on something like this it isn't millions gone from the economy in fact they are off to do many other things. The only wasted money is what is sitting in a piggy bank or thrown under a mattress.

            • The contribution to this scam could be going toward valuable research that might actually change something. Wasting millions on a toy is still waste.

              Ah yes, the "money wasted on X could be better spent elsewhere" fallacy.

              Utterly irrelevant. The same millions could go to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, researching a cure for cancer, or a thousand other worthy things.

              The entire project is financed by private entities, whose legally-accrued money is theirs to do with as they please as long as it doesn't harm others. And by definition it's not a scam because the project is ultimately doing exactly what "investors" were told it would do.

      • by dywolf (2673597)

        that's the point: it isnt really state of the art. sailplanes have already gone distances of 1400 miles, and they use no power whatsoever.
        this thing is more like a fancy sailplane with its own onboard motor (which is actually common on more expensive sailplanes flown in areas without tows or winches to get airborne). having solar cells means less thermal riding reliance than a sailplane, but the extreme low speed frequent stops, and low low mileage overall make this extremely unimpressive, even by "state of

    • by Virtucon (127420)

      It's an adventure game..

      Does anybody recognize one of the pilot's names? Piccard? No, not Star Trek.

      The Piccards are explorers, and Bertrand, the Chariman of this project and his family have done quite a [a="http://www.bertrandpiccard.com/eng/family1.php#"] few other things,...[/a]

      Bertrand was also one of the guys in the Breitling Orbiter in 1999 [bertrandpiccard.com] and went around the world.

      His Grandfather, Auguste, [wikipedia.org] was an explorer and did stratospheric experiments with balloons in the 1930s.. He later designed the Bath [wikipedia.org]

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        The point is that I can take a power glider around the world today. I find it difficult to call something that can already be done with old technology exploration. To me exploration is finding and doing new things. This is just expensive toys funded under the falsehood that it could never be done before. False advertising is still wrong.

    • by tompaulco (629533)
      If they charged the battery on the ground then they are also being dishonest about not using any fuels. Although of course there was a huge amount of indirect fuel used for various activities in the manufacture, transport, and whatnot, if they actually charged the batteries on the ground then they directly used fuel to do so, although like electric cars, the environmentalists tend to handwave the electric generation away.
      I find the feat to be unremarkable, especially in light of the fact that it has been d
  • *rubs head* alright.... while I can appreciate that it's a solar-powered, electric plane, this thing has really only served to prove one very important point - we are no where NEAR ready to make solar powered planes yet.

    Solar cells are just not efficient enough to make this a viable means of powered flight. The proof is in the stats - 11,628 cells are only enough to provide the plane power to lift itself and a pilot. And that's with a wingspan of 208 feet. It has no on-board luxuries of any kind... inclu

    • by Motard (1553251)

      we are no where NEAR ready to make solar powered planes yet.

      Psst... this is a story about a solar powered plane successfully making it's way across the continental U.S.

      No, I don't want to buy one. But it is interesting.

      • by Dakiraun (1633747)

        As someone already pointed out, it took multiple trips. But even if it were one trip, the point is that it's not practical yet. I agree, it's definitely interesting, just not usable yet, and that's what I mean about how we're not ready to make them yet, as in for general public/practical use. Maybe, hopefully, I'll see that in my life time.

    • by wagnerrp (1305589)
      There is really very little room to improve such technology. The claims on the solar array are that their cells are roughly 22% efficient. The only way to really go up from there is with much more expensive multi-junction cells, and even then, you're going to top out at around 40%. Batteries could be improved, cutting weight and wingspan. Best case scenario, you might end up with something that could sustain 60mph, up from a mere 45mph. This will never be an alternative to the current batch of gas-guzz
      • by Dakiraun (1633747)

        Agreed. Even if they were to find a remarkable new material or means of producing solar cells that pushed efficiency past 50%, you need better (lighter) batteries, and more efficient (and lighter) electric engines as well. I'm not sure "never" is quite the right way to put it, but it's definitely not something we'll have in the immediate future. I just wonder how long it will take for technology to solve the efficiency problems.

        • by wagnerrp (1305589)
          Well designed electric motors already run 80%+ efficient. There's not much room for improvement there. Single junction cells have a hard upper limit around 33%, due to losses on either side of a cell's tuned band gap. We do have room for improvement in multi-junction cells, but at a rapidly increasing cost. You can run a heat engine rather than photovoltaic, but doing so requires concentration. Mirrors are simply not an option, and lenses get you into weight and diffraction issues. At the end of the d
  • Over Night Flight (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jklovanc (1603149) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @05:13PM (#44211953)

    This article [solarimpulse.com] is about a night flight dine by Solar Impulse. Though they do not say it, I bet they started with 100% battery power. Here are a few interesting excerpts from the article.

    . He remained at this altitude until about noon, flying backwards and forwards along the Jura mountain chain.

    I am a glider pilot and this indicates that he is using ridge lift [wikipedia.org] or mountain wave [wikipedia.org] to stay alloft and/or gain altitude. Both are standard sailplane tactics.

    After 14 ½ hours of flying, at 9:30pm, André Borschberg switched off the solar generator

    Around midnight, the aircraft was at 4’500 feet, slightly less than 1’500 m, the altitude it needed to maintain until sunrise.

    At 5:46am, on July 8, HB-SIA became the first solar-powered airplane to successfully complete a night flight.

    By validating the fact that the HB-SIA had returned with a 54% charge level in its batteries,

    So the aircraft consumed 46% of it's charge in about 5 hours and 46 minutes. Night was about 8 hours long. So they have proven that under controlled conditions with a very long day and a very short night the aircraft can fly overnight. Considering the sailplane record is 56 hours 15 Minutes, I am not impressed. It is still a toy with no practical application.

    • by Motard (1553251)

      Did the sailplane hop across the continental U.S.? If not, it appears that this thing is better.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        A person on a bicycle can hop across continental U.S. Just because someone spent the millions of dollars to do it does not make the feat special. The distance record for a glider is 2256.9km in one hop.

      • by dywolf (2673597)

        Did the sailplane hop across the continental U.S.? If not, it appears that this thing is better.

        In one hop? No, not yet. But then neither did this toy.
        But the sailplane record is 1407 miles, which by definition is a single hop.

        Sailplanes are limited by pilot endurance, and available daylight hours (because thermals are created by sunlight heating the ground). in fact, you could say sailplanes are the original solar powered aircraft.

      • by dywolf (2673597)

        Also: Sunseeker (1990) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunseeker_I#Sunseeker [wikipedia.org]
        This is just a fancy european effort at accomplishing something already done, with a lot of corporate sponsors (with links to DICE??), and lots of money.

    • The plane had to support the weight of the batteries and the solar cells. It had to be able to lift off and travel across the country so it could not rely on ridge lift for most sections of the flight. This same plane made it over night, all be it with the help of sailplane flying techniques. However, it is not, in fact, designed to be a sailplane nor does if function solely as one.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        could not rely on ridge lift for most sections of the flight.

        Thermal work quite well too. Just find a dark patch of ground in the sun.

        The other issue is that they do not say whether or not the batteries are recharged by solar alone. Even if they did use the solar panels to recharge, waiting for that recharge is not very efficient.

        However, it is not, in fact, designed to be a sailplane

        It has all the hallmarks of a sailplane;
        long, high aspect ration wings,
        slim fuselage,
        minimal carrying capacity

        It is still a toy for rich kids.

        • by Cochonou (576531)
          I do not know what they did for this particular trip. However, the procedure for most of its sorties in Europe was to have the aircraft batteries charge on the ground from its solar panels, prior to take-off. For instance, for its demonstration at the 2011 Paris Air Show which took place on Saturday morning, they left the plane in the sun on Friday.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    How much faster is this than a solar dirigible? What kind of load can it carry?

    I'm happy this worked, and it should be pursued, but it seems to me lightweight bags of gas are particularly good at remaining aloft and have a surface area that ought to be very compatible with some electric engines. And since the lift isn't totally depending on the turbines, you could probably move cargo cheaply too.

  • Now make it 800,000 lbs of plane, pax, and luggage, and do it in 5 hours or less east to west.

    Then you'll have something.

    • by Virtucon (127420)

      Do you want Korean pilots with that? ....

      What? Too Soon? ....

    • Tell that to the Wright brothers after they made their first powered flight. Orville Wright lived another 4 decades afterward, but didn't get to see anything fulfilling all your conditions.

      Not saying that Solar Impulse will ever lead to anything comparable, but loading it with such lofty requirements is uncalled for.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    One commenter mentioned the "fundamental dishonesty" of many of the stories on Solar Impulse. Hah. Even the Solar Impulse site itself acknowledges that a trans-USA flight in a series of hops was done by a previous airplane, Sunseeker. The year? 1990. Here's a photo of the plane: http://www.inhabitat.com/wp-content/uploads/sunseeker_solar_main.jpg

    Wikipedia shows where Solar Impulse fits in the history of electric and solar-powered airplanes (it's pretty far down the list): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar-

  • This is really nice and cool. And saying I few at 45mph across the US would nice. What does this actually accomplish? Can we actually move products across the country or people or things or something?
  • The U.S. is a small country to fly across. Try flying across Canada! From the edge of Yukon to edge of Newfoundland. About twice the distance, and probably a lot less light to use power due to the higher latitude. This solar plane needs to be tested in all sorts of environments and I'm sure we can provide some. From cold, snowy, rainy, humid, and even hot on some days.

    • by MiG82au (2594721)
      Bzzzt. You need to go back to geography class and learn your map projections if you think it's twice the distance. The longest great circle distance I can measure within Canada is 5160 km (NW Yukon to Newfoundland), and from SFO to JFK it's 4130 km.
      FWIW, the longest distance I can find in the contiguous USA is NW Washington to the Florida Keys: 4630 km. Tell me again how Canada is soooo big.
  • Don't get me wrong: there surely is a need to promote clean energy, fuel efficiency and all but why for fucks sake would anybody assume that this is a configuration that will ever be of use outside of high and very long flying unmanned planes for surveillance or similar ?

    You cannot defy the laws of physics and they tell me that even with weightless 100% efficiency solar cells that cover a huge blimp you might barely able to drive the thing. Why not store the energy that can be collected with ground based s

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