André Borschberg, Co-Founder and CEO, Solar Impulse
» Interview

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André Borschberg, Co-Founder and CEO, Solar Impulse


ATN: The Solar Impulse 2 has written history as the first airplane travelling around the world using only sunlight for fuel. Which were the main challenges?

AB: There were many. First of all, 14 years ago we came to the conclusion that the solar airplane had to be bigger than the 747 in terms of wings span with the weight of a car and when we proposed to the aviation industry to design and to build this airplane they simply said it was impossible. the first big challenge was that the technology that was available in the world of aviation was not good enough to Build our solar airplane.  We had to look for other solutions, we had to build up a team, we had to find partners, we had to identify the right technologies. What was very interesting at the end was that we did not invent new technologies. It would have been outside of the scope of our project. Electric motors were existing and were used extensively. Of course we made them better and better but they were available. the same for solar cells. So, what was important was to develop the right mindset: first to believe that it was possible and  second to find a way to bring all the right solutions together to make it feasible.

I have very often tried to explain that what really took time was to develop the right team, the right organization, the right attitude compared to the time it took to develop our technology.  In a very similar way, it's what happened in the car industry when it tried to develop electric cars. Big manufacturers simply replaced combustion engines with electric motors and were astonished that the endurance was much too low. And of course they came to the conclusion that electric cars had no future. It needed someone outside from the car industry, Elon Musk, to believe it was possible and to design a car specially developed around electric
motors technology in order to release it¹s full potential. We were in a similar situation. Just to integrate solar cells in an existing airplane would not have allowed us to have an airplane with unlimited endurance capable to fly day and nights for a very long time. Our first challenge was therefore to develop the right mindset, develop the right team, develop the right attitude. the second challenge was to find partners which would provide the financing to do the project and of course it is never easy as you can imagine. That was Bertrand's challenge. The project was attractive as it had a clear purpose: make Solar Impulse an ambassador for clean technology, demonstrate how we can make our world more efficient with a better use of our ressources in the same way as we had to do it in our airplane. The third challenge was to do something that was never done. you have to jump in the unknown. On one side it is a strong motivation on the other side it is full of surprises. You need to know that, whatever plan you have it will develop differently. it is going to be different from what you have expected and you need to be prepared for that. To always keep a high energy level, to be able to rebound from one problem to the next, to understand that obstacles can be turned into opportunities.

ATN: How difficult was to prepare yourself physically and psychologically for such a long trip?

AB: Physically was not so difficult because it's not a marathon, it's not something that is very demanding in terms of physical strength.  I think again the mindset was the most important one. So, first of all I saw this as a great opportunity, and as not jumping into something difficult to be done but to see it  a great opportunity  to make it personal experience, a great opportunity  to learn about myself and I saw that perhaps five days that it would be too short  for this, even if it was 6 or 7 it would be even a better experience. So, when you develop take this kind of attitude in fact you don't see the difficult part but you see what  it brings. You focus on what  you learn,  you focus on what you get  and make the perception of  the experience  completely different. This is the first I mean the first kind of thought process I went through.

The second step was to understand that whatever I could prepare, it would develop differently and important was not to get disturbed by that, to accept the unexpected, even to welcome the change of plans. I'll give you an example,  I made in 2012 with Solar Impulse 1, a flight from Washington to New York I took off very early in the morning I think it was 5 o'clock I planned to land at Kennedy airport in New York at 23:00 o'clock at night and I was flying during the day above the atlantic ocean and  at noon I had the visit of a helicopter from CNN who came to take some pictures  and when he was close to me he  told me that I was losing parts of the undercover of the wing - the wing has a covering underneath and part of it was being taken away. They took a picture and sent it directly to the Solar Impulse engineers in Switzerland and very quickly i got their feedbacks. They told me that they were astonished that the wing did not disintegrate yet. So, you can imagine the shock.  I immediately prepared myself to jump out  with a parachute. I cleaned the cockpit and decided  to go mentally through the entire bail out process: how to leave the airplane,  how to fall in the sky, how to open the parachute, how to get into the ocean and I  told to myself if you have to jump out Andre you can make it, you are well trained for that so it should not be a problem. And I also told myself that if you have to jump out, make sure to be fully conscious and to enjoy it, You will not have the chance to get out of an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean again. If I have to jump out because I'm losing the aeroplane, it's happening and I can't do anything against it.  This calmed me down completely and I could fly the remaining 9 hours without too much stress and land safely at JFK.

ATN:  You started this project together with Bertrand Piccard back in 2003, how do you feel now that finally your dream came true? What is next?

AB: I think that we have achieved much more than we expected. It took longer to complete it, it was more difficult than we had imagined. But we had a fantastic media coverage and so many interactions with the public, much more  that we had anticipated.The work is not over, our world is still not energy efficient so there is still much we can do and that¹s the mission that Bertrand Piccard has set for himself.

The second dimension which attracts me a lot is our airplane technology and what we can do with it. The plane is solar. That's the source of energy as we wanted to have an airplane which can have an unlimited endurance.  You cannot take the energy on board before take off if you want to fly for ever. Energy is weight and is therefore limited. By getting it from the sun gives us unlimited flying time, as least theoretically. But a commercial airplane does not need to fly for ever. What it needs is to be very fuel or energy efficient. And that's what an electric propulsion can provide: a very high efficiency. Solar Impulse was electric as this was the only way to make it very efficient and to fly day and night with sun energy. And this electric propulsion which was considerd anecdotal 15 years ago when we started our ptroject is now part of all the major development programs of the aviation
industry.  It's attractive because it will help to solve many of the criticism made to airplanes. It will make them cleaner, more silent. More efficient, safer and cheaper.


ATN: Do you believe  that it is possible to see this kind of Technology being used partially or even totally in commercial aircraft?

AB: In 2030 so in 15 years from now you will see small to mid-size commercial electric airplanes for short distances, let's say from Athens to Milan. To make things clear,  it may not be solar, but certainly electric.

ATN: How about the solar technology with that those would be  possible in the future?

AB: It is very difficult to say. Today I don't see how we would make it possible because we are limited by the amount of energy provided by the sun. At noon one square meter receives about 1000 watts from the sun. This is the power of a hair dryer. it is a very small amount of energy and not enough for commercial airplanes. But what I'm sure is  that electric propulsion will be a game changer for aviation. What we can do today is to build an unmanned version of solar impulse and to make it fly 6 months non-stop in the stratosphere to replace or complement what satellites are doing today but much cheaper and of course in a very sustainable way. You can bring these aircrafts back on earth replace their systems and make them fly again.

ATN: Did the aircraft manufacturers approach you for the technology?

AB: Yes we are in touch with a lot of people and we are developing our own company, H55, to further develop electric propulsion technology, energy storage, energy management, pilot interface system, everything which is needed to make an aeroplane electric.

ATN: Are people still skeptic when they hear about the solar energy airplane?

AB: First of all people don't say congratulations, people say thank you, thank you for the inspiration, thank you for
the hope it brings, thank you for showing what can be done. This is a great reward for all of us in the team. Some people have focussed on the modest speed of the airplane, may be not realising that for the first time ever it can fly for an unlimited time. Flying such an airplane is an extraordinary experience:  knowing that you can be in the air for one week, potentially one month, getting your energy directly from the sun gives you an incredible feeling. The majority of people are extremely grateful for what the project is bringing.

ATN: How about the aviation industry, including the organizations, how did they react when hearing about Solar aircraft?

AB: The aviation industry is made up by pioneers,  by people who are passionate. the aviation industry recognises  what has
been done through many awards as it understands better than anyone else what the challenges were.

ATN: Last  December ATN gave to Solar Impulse the Decade Award, what does that mean for you?

AB: First of all, this award is not  only for me and Bertrand. The project has been developed by a big team and it takes a lot of team work in order to make it possible.  The team when  we were flying around the world was about 140 people: engineering, mission related, control center which was in Monaco, and communication. The pilot is the one flying the airplane
but the mission team centered in Monaco prepared and did the entire flight strategy, chose where this airplane   had to fly
because of weather because of traffic because of geography. so without all this support it would have been impossible for us to fly.  This award is a fantastic recognition for all of them, for each member of the Solar Impulse team.

ATN:  How do you visualize aviation in 30 years from now?

AB: Quite different. if you look at commercial aviation during the last  50 years it did not change much. if you look at the Boeing
707 which was one of the first jetliner and you compare it to the Airbus 340 there is not a huge difference. of course it is larger, it is  more efficient,  it has a better video, it is more comfortable but at the end it  uses the same kind of  technology. So, we need a disruption. I believe we will see you new technologies coming into airplanes and based on electric propulsion solutions. This will allow you to fly into cities at night as these airplanes will be more silent. This will allow us to develop new type of aircrafts that we call VTOLs.  VTOLs are aircrafts that can take off and land such as a helicopter but fly as an airplane using electric propulsion, being quieter, cleaner ultimately being part of urban transportation solutions in the
skies of Los Angeles or Shanghai.

My goal is to have such an airplane flying autonomously at the time I will be loosing my pilot licence because of age reason. That's why I co-founded H55, to provide technologies to achieve this goal.

ATN: Do you have any last thoughts that would you like to share with ATN readers?

AB: Especially, in the world of aviation when a lot of people  tell you that something is impossible, don't believe them! Because very often we have the technologies,  it's a question of mindset just think about the Wright
Brothers.  The Wright Brothers built  an airplane using  wood  and clothes both materials which were used and available for thousands of years. What was missing was the belief that it was possible. And that's what the Wright brothers were
able to do.  In 1903  there were a a lot of engineers trying to demonstrate that flying was impossible. so let's not believe the ones who tell us it's impossible today.

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