Making dreams fly: the Solar Impulse story

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Solar Impulse made history by circumnavigating the entire world using only solar energy. The daring designers of electric aircraft have made a lot of progress recently and such experimental models will one day bring electric propulsion technology to aviation. Itʼs only a matter of time.

Solar Impulse made aviation history when it completed the longest solo solar-powered flight ever achieved without fuel or any polluting emissions. The revolutionary plane flew around 40 000 km in 17 months, including one leg that lasted five days non-stop, using only the energy of the sun. The vision of initiator Bertrand Piccard was to embrace clean technologies and energy efficiency to explore the unknown, while providing a benefit for the whole world. Together with co-founder and CEO André Borschberg, he made that a reality, looking beyond the realm of aviation to find the solutions they needed.

From the materials required to build an ultra-lightweight plane to the electronics necessary to create the most efficient motor, standards played a key role in this aviation feat. Solar Impulse was a core team of 150 people, 80 partners and 80 companies. Here, we talk to André Borschberg about how they turned their vision into reality and how standards gave them the foundation on which to build their dream, using their expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to fly where no-one has ever flown before.

ISOfocus: Nobody thought they could fly on solar power alone. The success of Solar Impulse is a technological feat. Where did the imagination and inspiration behind this technology come from?

André Borschberg: Solar Impulse is not revolutionary in terms of technology; it is revolutionary in the way we use technologies. It pools the expertise of engineers from different backgrounds and skill sets to integrate these technologies, which is the key for us. It is also about pushing the limits to understand where we need to go and how we are going to get there.

Interestingly, in the case of Solar Impulse, the aviation industry told us they believed it was impossible. Often, you donʼt have the solutions you need within your industry in order to make developments. You have to find them outside. For us, they came from partners from different worlds. The world of chemistry, for example, because materials are extremely important when you want to make a light airplane.


Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg – two pilots pioneering clean flight technologies.
In what way did standards play a role?

To develop something like this, you have to go to the limits – and to go to the limits, you need a very solid base. Thatʼs where ISO standards come in: they provide that solid base that allows us to exchange between partners, in fact between all the people involved in finding solutions.

We had to manufacture a lot of our parts using external suppliers. Many were handmade so we had to have really good drawings that people in the workshops could work from. For this, there needs to be a standardized language so that the drawings can be understood by suppliers across the board.

Standards were essential in providing that common language. They were also essential in areas like material definition, tolerances and welded parts.

What is the future of this technology? Where to from here?

The Solar Impulse prototype showed us how we can use “clean tech” to make our world more efficient. But this energy efficiency isnʼt just for airplanes… it can be used in your home, in your car and in the appliances you buy. It is about how we use the technologies we have available to reduce energy consumption. We have learned that this can be done everywhere – if we can do it in airplanes, we can do it on the ground.

What this extraordinary adventure has done is open up the potential for using electric propulsion. Electric propulsion is extremely efficient, itʼs light, it isnʼt noisy... you can imagine what it could do for airplanes if we were ever able to master it. And it has already started. Today, we see that big corporations like the US space agency NASA are launching big projects in this direction. The ball is starting to roll, which is great! 

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

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