The revenge of Icarus

The plan to circumnavigate the globe in a solar plane is an ambitious technological challenge involving thousands of parameters. But, most of all, it carries with it the message of Bertrand Piccard: an appeal for more humanity.

Bertrand Piccard 'The greatest adventure of all is life'. ©BKW/FMB Energie SA Bertrand Piccard “The greatest adventure of all is life.”
©BKW/FMB Energie SA
«If this aeroplane can circumnavigate the globe without fuel or polluting emissions, perhaps others will wonder what else they can achieve in this direction.» ©Solar Impulse/EPFL Claudio Leonardi «If this aeroplane can circumnavigate the globe without fuel or polluting emissions, perhaps others will wonder what else they can achieve in this direction.»
©Solar Impulse/EPFL Claudio Leonardi

Bertrand Piccard turns to gaze at the scene of Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains beyond the windows of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). But he is no dreamer. He prefers to speak of ‘visions’ that have marked his life. Perhaps it was his destiny to be an explorer of possibilities?

A legacy of adventuring

This is a question that makes sense to the grandson of Auguste Piccard, who provided the inspiration for mad Professor Calculus in the Adventures of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Inventor of the pressurised cabin, Auguste Piccard was the first person to test it in 1931, reaching the stratosphere in his balloon (16 000 metres), and was also the first to witness the curvature of the Earth with his own eyes. Auguste’s son, Jacques Piccard, a deep sea explorer, dived to the Mariana Trench, 10 916 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. By demonstrating the existence of currents between the sea bed and the surface, as well as the presence of living organisms in the ocean deeps, he effectively silenced the debate on whether to dump toxic waste in marine abysses.

So, as a child, Bertrand Piccard grew up between two fascinating worlds: the cosmos of the astronauts in the American space programme and the oceans of deep-sea divers. At the age of 16 he developed a passion for hang-gliding. He became European champion in hang-glider aerobatics in 1985, when he invented new figures, beat the altitude record and proposed the microlight as an ecological alternative for light aviation.

However, the meaning of life and of human behaviour has always been his main concern. In 1996, following a doctorate in medicine, he studied psychiatry “to discover the keys to human growth and development, much more than to understanding human sufferings”. In a bid to put interpretations into context and to expand his ideas on people and life, Bertrand Piccard explored alternative approaches, taking an interest in Taoist medicine before training in hypnotherapy and specialising in adult and child psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Around the world and a turning point in life

At the same time Bertrand Piccard was planning to realise his dream to make the ultimate non-stop around-the-world flight in a balloon carried by the wind. On 21 March 1999, he and British aeronaut Brian Jonesalighted from their Breitling Orbiter 3 in Egypt after travelling across all the Earth’s meridians. This experience taught the two men that mastery and willpower are limited to the things one can control. Our freedom is embodied by the ability to rise up – freeing ourselves of our certainties – to take control of our existence. This expedition illustrated Bertrand Piccard’s concept of the psychology of life and of communication in his ongoing activities as a speaker for both public and corporate events.

This last great adventure of the twentieth century, with its records for flight duration and distance, caught the imagination of the public and the media. This surge of enthusiasm brought with it a wind of change which Bertrand Piccard wanted to harness and channel into the areas closest to his heart: in his view, the great adventure of the twenty-first century is sustainable development. So he has summoned together the resources for his new challenge: to circumnavigate the globe in a non-polluting aeroplane powered solely by solar energy.

The Solar Impulse gamble

Admittedly the idea is nothing new. The small-scale models of the 1970s were followed by a Channel crossing in 1981 and flights of several hundred kilometres, as long as the sun’s rays touched the wings. However, since weight is at a premium, the pilot had to yield up his place to batteries to enable an unmanned drone aircraft to stay airborne overnight. In September 2007, Zephyr, the unmanned solar prototype of British firm Qinetic, successfully flew for 54 hours nonstop, remaining aloft over the course of two nights.

With Solar Impulse(1) a pilot will spend the night on board a solar plane for very first time. This is because only eight hours of useable sunlight (the lower the sun, the less efficient its rays) will be needed to supply the ecological craft with the energy to keep flying while simultaneously recharging its batteries, thanks to 256 m² of solar “skins”. To reduce the weight to the minimum, the wings will be made of a composite structure in which the photovoltaic cells are encapsulated and embedded. At the same time, the wing structure will need to be tough enough to endure external conditions of extreme humidity, temperature and stress. This is not a prospect that Bertrand Piccard, one of the planned two pilots, relishes in the least…

Behind the great adventure

In fact, reading a comic book in front of a log fire would be adventure enough for Bernard Piccard. The adventurer has no need for action. But he does need to spread the following message: “If this aeroplane can circumnavigate the globe without fuel or polluting emissions, perhaps others will wonder what else they can achieve in this direction. The means are already available for everyone to reduce their energy consumption by 20%.” And a symbol: “Just as the Solar Impulse pilot will need to save his energy reserves if he wishes to see another dawn, twenty-first century people will be heading for disaster if they continue to waste the planet’s resources. If the human race wishes to see the dawning of a new day, it must manage energy in a different way and develop suitable technologies.”

Science is therefore at the heart of the adventure. “Its role for the survival of the human race is extremely clear: to find the means for economising energy, for producing it from renewable sources and for reducing human impact on the environment.” But adventure is also at the heart of science. “I want to show that our current models can be altered. Because there are more ways of doing things than people might think.”

Agents of change

And in promoting these new attitudes, “governments have an important role to play. For example, as a result of government legislation allowing solar energy to be reinjectedinto the power grid, Germany has become the world’s second largest constructor of solar panels. All it took was a government with a future vision”. But industry is also much more conservative than the scientific sector. “Many discoveries fail to be put into industrial application. This is why sustainable development must be given a financial and economic language as well as an ecological one. Since we cannot change the way humans are, let us adapt to it: environmental protection must be profitable and bring in money, create jobs, place innovative products on the market, develop outlets, find new customers… so, we shall adopt the same rationale”.

And Solar Impulse paves the way for this: “In this respect, our partnership with financial institutions is all important”, says Bertrand Piccard. “But in no way is the exploitation of project developments for profit an end in itself. What is more, virtually all of the innovations will be free of copyright. This is what makes it so exciting, especially for engineers. Otherwise it would be a venture project like any other”.

Living life differently

Although physical constraints cannot be altered, Bertrand Piccard wants to shake the constraints that we impose upon ourselves to convince ourselves that we are doing the best we can. “These constraints are dire in today’s society, which is a prisoner to its ways of thinking and acting, especially in the way it consumes energy. I am convinced that we could do much more than we think if we use all our creativity and explore all possible solutionsAccording to Bertrand Piccard, this would make companies more constructive and successful.

They would not continue to rush headlong in catastrophic directions, unthinkingly, as they do today, leaving colossal debts to future generations such as climate change, depletion of the Earth’s natural resources and a polluted world. “Life is there for people to be creative, to interact, to get involved. I want my own life to be interesting and useful. The rare moments of extreme awareness and performance are extraordinary when they happen, but the greatest adventure of all is life: to try to do better every day, to think differently, to be truer to ourselves, to be more aware of our actions.”

Bertrand Piccard’s approach represents a return to the values of humanism, a current of thought born during the Renaissance period that sees people as responsible and capable.

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. Name of the project and of his aeroplane.

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Solar Impulse

This project has been on track since the positive outcome of the feasibility study in late 2003. Under the direction of André Borschberg, 50 specialists are now building a plane, after having explored the possibilities for developing extremely light but resistant materials and simulators for energy and weather scenarios. The Solar Impulse project will cost 70 million euros, 60% of which has already been funded by collaborating partners and private investors.

The plan is to build two aeroplanes to circumnavigate the globe in five stages (each leg lasting three to six days), with stopovers on all five continents. The first prototype is in the pipeline. It has no pressurised cabin and its primary aim is to check that reactions to the predicted simulations are correct. Its planned roll-out is in late summer 2008 and the first night-flight trials will take place in 2009.

The final aeroplane that will fly around the world is planned to be ready by 2010. It will have the wingspan of an Airbus A380 (80 metres) but weigh only two tons. This special wing design has the advantage of reducing induced drag and flying speed. Using potential energy it will climb to a higher altitude during peak sunlight hours and then glide back down to altitudes of between 12 000 and 3 000 metres during the night using the stored energy. The plane’s long wingspan also provides a surface area of 256 m² for collecting solar energy. On the underside of the wings there will be dye cells to absorb diffused light.

To capture the sun’s rays, Solar Impulse will need to fly above the clouds, skirting around unfavourable air currents. Collaboration with meteorologists will therefore be crucial, especially since the electric motors (numbering at least two) will generate only the small amount of power which the brothers Wright had to work with in 1903. Starting at a ground speed of 40 kilometres per hour, the plane will increase in speed as it gains altitude, reaching 75 km/h at 10 000 metres.

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will take turns in piloting the one-seated plane non-stop for several days at a time. At altitude, the problem of thinner air compounds that of cold temperatures. And weight constraints limit the pilot’s conditions of comfort to a strict minimum. To achieve their ends, the pilots will therefore be testing a highly innovative and symbiotic manmachine interface, which will utilise senses other than sight and hearing. So many hours of solo flying also requires them to undergo special training in managing sleep patterns.


Social sustainability

As Bertrand Piccard says, “life cannot be reduced to the areas covered by science”. Another aspect of  development is social. Over and above the inevitable environmental problems, “it is not possible to believe in a peaceful future if most of the world has nothing more to lose. The poor countries must be allowed more potential, more possibilities to develop, which we take away from them in the form of international regulations, customs barriers, active exploitation.”

Following their round-the-world balloon journey in Breitling Orbiter 3, the two pilots, Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard, created the foundation Winds of Hope to help combat noma, the forgotten scourge of hundreds of  thousands of children in the poorest regions of Asia, Africa and South America.

Half a million children between the ages of two to six suffer from this horrifying disease, most of them in the African countries of the Sahel region. The disease, which destroys both the soft tissue and bone tissue of the face, is the result of living in conditions of extreme poverty and malnutrition. Despite the fact that all that is needed to prevent noma is disinfectant baths, vitamins and antibiotics, only 20 000 of the annual 100 000 new cases are treated. And, as these children are disfigured for life by their facial scars, they risk rejection by their friends and family in the belief that the sufferer has been cursed.