Having hovered silently over the bay of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Saturday night, a majestic dragonfly 72 meters wide has settled down with a mild electric buzz. This is Solar Impulse, the symbol of a new era of sophisticated lightness, not only of our future technologies, but hopefully also of our thoughts and our actions.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, at the Mountain View Airfield, Sergey Brin himself welcomed the "solar pilot" after the landing. Brin is co-founder of Google, one of the partners of Solar Impulse.
Without a single drop of fuel the solar airplane accomplished the first crossing of the Pacific (China-Japan-Hawaii-California), only part of the extraordinary world tour of the two "solar pilots" Swiss Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. In the coming months this hi-tech-dragonfly will fly in 5 legs, above the USA, the Atlantic, Europe, and will reach Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, where she left on March 9 last year. This is home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and to the solar town Masdar City, designed by Sir Norman Foster. From Abu Dhabi to Hawaii Solar Impulse covered 20 000 km in 8 legs and 250 flight hours, using 5600 kWh, collected from the sun by 200 m2 of photovoltaic panels. Not surprisingly, the solar aircraft has a circadian rhythm like most living beings: during the day she climbs higher and higher and charges the batteries, in the night she actively "rests" and glides, with the help of the batteries' electricity.
Aboard alternate Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. The latter, a former military pilot, is the aviation mind of the project, Bertrand Piccard is the charismatic figure. For three generations the Piccard have been a Swiss dynasty of what Swiss-French names "savant-urier" (scientists and adventurous). After Earth had been explored in extension, the Piccard dedicated themselves to explore it vertically. Auguste Piccard (1884-1962), professor of physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich conceived both a stratospheric balloon, with which in 1930 he reached the 17,000 meters of altitude, and four bathiscaphes. With one of them, FNRS-3, he and his son Jacques reached in 1953 the 3150 meters depth in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1960 his son Jacques Piccard (1922-2008), father of Bertrand, dove with his Italy-made bathyscaphe Trieste down to 11 000 meters in the Mariana Trench (Pacific Ocean) - setting an unbeaten record.
While the grandfather and father searched the planet to know him, Bertrand Piccard runs through it to protect it. But rather than the "external planet", Bertrand, a psychiatrist, practitioner of yoga and hypnosis, explores the "inner world", both of the individual and of the humankind, in its relationship with nature: what psychological experiences does a human being live, while sitting in solitude in a tiny cockpit for 50 or 100 hours and staring and oceans and continents below him? Which ecological limits should humankind embrace, to allow ten billion people to live with dignity without devastating the Earth? In this respect relevant was the video-dialogue on Thursday, April 22 between Piccard in flight and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, along with the heads of state from 175 nations gathered at the United Nations in New York, to sign the Paris climate agreement.
Solar Impulse is a jewel of technology and Swiss coordination. When in 2000 Piccard proposed his project, technologists and industry leaders told him that it was impossible. Yet with a stubborn work from 2003 to 2015 this aircraft was conceived and built in Switzerland, in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Losanne (EPFL), with the contribution of the federal government, as well of and institutions and companies.
Solar Impulse is wider than a Boeing 747, but she weighs like a car - 2.3 tons. The power of each of its four engines is 8 HP, the same of the engine of the Wright Flyer, the first powered airplane that took off in 1903, opening the era of aviation. Deemed physically impossible until the beginning of last century, motorized aircrafts do transport each year billions of passengers and millions of tons of freight. In the last half-century air traffic doubled every 15 years, with a continuous increase in safety, and an amazing exponential growth of transported passengers and goods. Along with these advances, however, total energy consumption of aviation is increasing hugely, and with it its environmental damage, especially that caused by burning fossil fuels. Will Solar Impulse open a new, a sustainable era of aviation? If this will be the century of the transition to renewable energies - not only in the air - Solar Impulse has a good chance of becoming a fascinating emblem.
If air transport wants to continue moving the current masses at the current speeds, it is unthinkable to feed it with photovoltaic panels, as we know them - although slow transport with modern solar airships is seriously considered. The lesson learned with Solar Impulse may help to develop lightweight solar airplanes, including unmanned ones. Think to the Mark Zuckerberg's vision of a global internet signal from the air. Yet the Solar Impulse campaign was born not to invent technologies but to propagate an idea: the transition to a light and sustainable development based on renewable energy. What better than a solar flight around the world can inspire millions of people? This is why a substantial part of the project is called futureisclean.org and is a worldwide initiative of advocacy (collecting signatures), information and education on sustainability, supported by initiators such as Sir Richard Branson, the visionary British airline entrepreneur and ballon adventurer, Doris Leuthard, Swiss Minister of the environment, Prince Albert of Monaco (where the the mission control room is hosted), Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, the UN environment Programme, Kofi Annan, Michael Gorbachev, Nicolas Hulot.
According to a Greek myth, Icarus dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. The latter melted and he fell into the sea. "Icarus 2.0" could be the name of the Solar Impulse sky adventure. Or perhaps "Happy Icarus," in a sunny version of Albert Camus motto: "The fight to the summit is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."