Flying As Passenger On A Solar Airplane

Believe it or not, the sun has been powering aircraft in continued flight since the 1980s, states Tony Tao, a Ph.D. trainee in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. Tao clarifies that NASA and its subcontractors have been at the forefront of development for solar-powered aircraft, having created the Pathfinder, Centurion and most recently, Helios. All three aircraft are remotely piloted, use batteries and fuel cells to keep power for nighttime flying, and are “all-wing” in structure.

In 2016, Facebook slid in on the action with Aquila, a solar-powered airplane designed to provide internet connectivity to areas without internet providers (probably to help boost Facebook accounts and do a good deed).

Many of these aircraft have wingspans as the broad passenger 737 jets. However, the similarities between the solar-powered aircraft and commercial passenger jets, we are all familiar with, end right about there.

Tao, who researches aircraft systems,  drone and rocket development, design and optimization, and is a test pilot for several AeroAstro projects, tells that solar-powered airplane to confer some “engineering challenges.” Initially, he says, both the sun and the aircraft are flying in the sky, so the point of capture for the sun to hit on the panels is highly variable. Due to this, the panels don’t capture as much energy as they could if they were, say, on a roof.

Another problem with solar-powered flight is currently harnessing enough energy for speed. There’s a cubic relationship between speed and how much power is necessary to move an object through the air, Tao describes. Photons captured in the solar cells have been converted to the electrical strength that powers electric machines but solar-powered planes these days are getting about 10 or 20 percent of the energy from sunlight. That relates to a speed of only 50 miles per hour.

Industrial passenger jets, on the other hand, travel at about 600 miles per hour. Tao indicates that even if we had the technology to harness 100 percent of the energy from the sun to power plane speeds would be about 100 mph. The power-to-speed relationship indicates that solar energy ends up being a not very good solution if you would like to have people somewhere fast, Tao says.

Unluckily, solar-powered aircraft face, even more, strikes literally, and figuratively. Because these kinds of jets are made with enormous wingspans and fragile, lightweight solar cells, they’re more vulnerable to adverse weather conditions.

But a significant positive of solar-powered aircraft, Tao notes, is that, unlike jets, solar aircraft do not need to carry fuel, and are not combusting oxygen, so that they could fly at much higher heights, which is especially crucial because solar-powered planes require to fly higher than the clouds to evade being in their shadow.

Overall, Tao explains, solar-powered aircraft are better suited for things like gathering data for weather research, loitering over a single place, or conducting an inspection with cameras, than for moving people nearby. In the end, “delicate” and “slow” are adjectives that likely won’t sell a good deal of seats on industrial passenger flights.

One individual who is not stopped from operating on solar-powered aircraft is Captain Piccard, and no, we do not imply that the Star Trek Next Generation one. Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss adrenalin seeker, and his partner Andre Borschberg took turns operating the Solar Impulse –the first solar-powered airplane to make a trip throughout the planet. The trip took a complete (non-continuous) year and was not precisely excellent flying, but Tao reveals that this trip was, however, a huge success for non-fuel-powered aircraft.

Considering that the sun will not ever give off more energy than it does, it appears solar-powered planes are not likely to be fast enough to carry hundreds of people one day viably. Tao analyses that solar flight can progress as better battery technology is developed that will allow solar-powered aircraft to remain in flight longer, especially at night, after that big yellow orb in the sky that powers all life, has set.

The new Zephyr S HAPS started from Arizona on July 11 and moved on to finish the lengthiest duration flight ever produced, Airbus Defence and Space stated in an announcement Wednesday. An application was made to confirm the trip as a new world record.

The uncrewed aircraft, a 75-kilogram Zephyr, and offers what Airbus describes as “neighborhood satellite-like services” and runs on solar energy. It includes a wingspan of 25 meters and runs in the stratosphere at an average height of 70,000 feet.

This very prosperous maiden flight shows a significant new landmark in the Zephyr program, including a new stratospheric flight longevity record which we believe will be formalized soon, Jana Rosenmann, administrator of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus.

“We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs and start the preparation of additional flights planned for the second half of this year from our new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia,” Rosenmann added.

Solar-powered aircraft provide an exciting glimpse of what the future of flight could finally look like. In 2016, the Solar Impulse 2, a manned aircraft powered by the sun, managed to circumnavigate the earth without using fuel. The trip was accomplished in 17 separate legs.

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