Last Monday I visited Solar Impulse at their hangar at the airport in Brussels. I could summarize the whole visit in one word: impressive. But, I won’t stop at that. It would not do it justice.
Walking up to the hangar I could feel a sense of anticipation within the small group that received the invitation for an exclusive visit to the plane. We had all seen the site, watched the landing in Brussels and followed Solar Impulse for a while. But nothing prepared us for the actual plane. It is huge. You can write about the wingspan as big as the Airbus A340, but if that huge A340 fuselage is not in between the wings, that makes for a completely different look. A look that is emphasized by the fuselage of the Solar Impulse that looks light and thin with a huge tail.
We were a privileged group. After taking some general pictures, we were invited ‘backstage’. We were so close we could have touched the plane. For me, this was a special moment. Not because you are on the other side of that line, but because behind the line, the sentiments were different. You could feel the excitement. You could feel the era of the early pioneers all over again. I believe this is the way you would have felt the excitement in the garage of the Wright brothers many years ago. Because that is the scale of the impact this project can have over time.
I believe in this project. Do I believe that we will all be flying in solar airplanes in, say, 20 years? No, I don’t. However, I believe that this project is one of the biggest steps in alternative power sources for transportation. If we look back into history, aviation and space technology have changed a lot for our cars and even our bikes. If we sit up and pay attention, this can do the same.
Solar Impulse is an inspiring project and even though one of its goals is to circumnavigate the world in 2014, their main goal is to inspire others. Unfortunately, that was where their display in Brussels fell short. When you see the plane from a distance, it is impressive, but you can also be deceived into thinking it is ‘just a plane’. Personally, I would advice them to create more of an experience around the technology that makes up the plane. It would not be hard to put a high-rise next to the plane, so you can see all of the 11628 solar cells instead of just seeing a little row before the curve of the wing. Also, it would be great to show the technology behind so many parts of the plane. Just put a huge styrofoam blok in the display for people to touch and lift up, so they can all feel how light the housings of the engines are. And a display case that shows the construction of the fuselage would be nice as well as it is mainly a sort of aluminum foil that is stretched onto a frame. Not to mention the fact that the wings do not have the solar cells stuck to them, but the solar cells are part of the actual construction. These are things that trigger people and make them understand that this plane is beyond what they have seen before. And it triggers that feeling of pioneering for a greater future.
Bertrand, if you read this, hat off to your efforts. I love it, but already knew I would after our interview in Paris at #LeWeb10. Elâ and Stephanie, thanks for hosting the visit. Sorry I couldn’t make the breakfast. I hope I can be part of the inspiration you want to give others through the blog and my suggestions. And naturally that also includes my suggestion to have Solar Impulse take a package on one of its next flights to make it the worlds’ first solar cargo plane as well.
May the project soar to unknown heights!