No speed record – yet

Solar Impulse 2 over Abu DhabiThe aircraft took off from Nagoya, Japan, Sunday on a planned 120-hour flight to Hawaii. Clearly, it is not out for a speed record; it was cruising at a ground speed of about 10 miles an hour when I watched it online.

In 2010, the craft flew a then-record breaking 26 consecutive hours. When it landed, it reportedly had enough battery left for another six hours in the air. Only five years later, the flight from Japan to Hawaii is scheduled for nearly five times as long. The goal is a 13-segment flight around the world – a seemingly easy feat for nearly any four-motored aircraft – except this one is powered by the sun.

Solar panels on the wings and fuselage charge the batteries during the day, while the airplane climbs as high as 30,000 feet. Then during the night, it runs the battery-powered motors in a long, slow, descent. Along the way, pilot and CEO André Borschberg snatches 20-minute naps.

Wednesday afternoon I watched as, at about 5,200 feet and 65 percent of the way to Hawaii, Borschberg surfed invisible waves of air. He had left Abu Dhabi at 7:12 a.m., March 9, to prove an aircraft can fly around the world on zero fuel. The Impulse’s four motors total roughly the power of the engine in the plane Wilbur and Orville Wright flew 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, S.C. Neither plane was commercially practical in its initial configuration, but look where we have come from Kitty Hawk.

I used my first “bag phone” in 1986. It was about the size of a regular desk telephone, carried in a zippered bag between office or home and vehicle. In the car, it plugged into an antenna and the car’s cigarette lighter.

A bit less than three decades later, my wireless phone allows me to watch movies, listen to music, converse almost instantaneously by email, and, when I feel a need, actually call someone and hear a voice.

I watched a TV show the other night on which a main character and leader in a battle against alien invaders felt a bug land on his neck. He slapped at it, and looked at the residue on his hand – and discovered the remains of what appeared to be a half-inch-long drone beetle. That was the end of the show, so we have to wait for next week to discover its purpose, but it clearly was remote controlled.

When I was a lad, I flew a radio controlled model airplane. With a handheld control unit, it could be flown through a variety of aerobatic maneuvers, but it had to stay within sight lest it run out of fuel and crash land in some out-of-sight pine tree, never to be found.

Now we call them drones, and equip them with cameras that allow us to watch their flight path on our smartphones. Or, using larger control panels, satellite communications and televised displays from 13,000 miles away, guide them with pinpoint precision to drop rockets and bombs on unsuspecting enemies we have never met. I wonder when we will see the first solar powered drones hovering over the successors to those same unmet enemies.

Here’s to the naysayers whose roadside billboards announce the impracticality of solar-generated electricity because the “wind stops and the sun sets.” It ain’t necessarily a problem, the wind stopping and the sun setting.

Soon, our children will use their handheld, solar-powered communicators to program their electric vehicles from home to work or Grandma’s house, decluttering no-longer-needed asphalt motorways as they move through the air at various speeds and altitudes, avoiding each other as though by magic. Remember the Jetsons? We’re almost there.

By the way: To follow the Solar Impulse online visit http://www.solarimpulse.com/.

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