A Decade of Collaboration for EPFL and Solar Impulse
In a leap towards flying around the world using solar power alone, Solar Impulse lands in New York – an important landmark for Solar Impulse and for Switzerland. EPFL has been a scientific partner to Solar Impulse since the plane’s inception, helping to validate the feasibility of the aircraft all the way to monitoring the mental states and heart rates of the pilots.
Throughout the years, EPFL scientists have evaluated and developed technology for Solar Impulse. They assembled the first mathematical models of the airplane, combining expertise from almost 15 laboratories and providing a first global picture. They also worked on aspects like flight simulators, solar cell technology, motor optimization, and man-machine interfaces with the participation of 20 laboratories. As Solar Impulse lands in New York, this fruitful collaboration continues with studies that address turbulence during take-off and landing, models of composite materials, and pilot well-being under strenuous flight conditions.
Validating the Dream
EPFL set the scientific framework of this solar powered airplane back in 2003 as the official scientific partner to Solar Impulse. The first report preferred a plane to the alternate proposal of a Zeppelin, suggesting a wingspan of approximately 70 meters and a weight of 1800 kg – close to the 63.5 meter, 1600 kg HB-SIA plane that just landed at JFK International Airport. This very first model was established by Pierre-Olivier Moix at the Industrial Electronics Laboratory. In close collaboration with André Borschberg, who would later become CEO, co-founder and pilot of Solar Impulse, Moix combined a set of components into a single mathematical model and found that a solar-powered plane could fly around the world.
To build this model, technical specifications were provided by EPFL scientists on components such as motor propeller optimization, energy generation and management, composite materials and multi-functional solar skins. Scientist Alfio Quarteroni and collaborators later extended this model for efficient design of a solar airplane using advanced mathematics. The same methodology was used to design the yacht Alinghi, which won the America’s Cup in 2003 and 2007.
Monitoring the Pilots During Strenuous Flights
Technology to monitor the vital signs of the Solar Impulse pilots is currently being developed at EPFL. The pilots were already monitored during a 72-hour flight simulation in 2012. Researcher David Atienza and collaborators developed the most clinically accurate, portable device – conveniently built into T-shirts or sleek chest-bands — to monitor heart rates and detect irregularities in real time. Based on EEG signals, researcher José del R. Millán and collaborators measured the mental awareness and sleep patterns of the pilots throughout the three days and three nights of flight. They also tested the cognitive performance of the pilots and, more specifically, how well they perceived their own mental aptitude several times during the flight.
The advice and technology provided by EPFL scientists has guided Solar Impulse throughout its adventure, and it has stimulated valuable research at EPFL. With Solar Impulse’s milestone flight “Across America” from California to New York, EPFL and Solar Impulse look ahead to a continuing collaboration in the future and an around-the-world flight in 2015.