The goal of zero emissions air travel generates a lot of great but fantastical ideas (huge cloud-shaped blimp, anyone?) -- but there's a company out there that has already flown test flights of a solar-powered helium plane. Toronto-based startup SolarShip has designed an hybrid airship and airplane that can not only fly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) carrying 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds), but also does it solely on the power supplied by the sun. See the test flight video:Even more amazing is that the ship can land on an area no bigger than a small soccer field. The Toronto Star gives more details on the plane:
The delta-shaped aircraft will be filled with helium, but slightly less than what’s required to lift it off the ground.
Solar panels across the top of its body, likely backed up by a lithium-ion battery system, will supply enough electricity to drive it forward and into the air. In this way, the design achieves just the right balance of static lift (like a blimp) and aerodynamic lift (like a plane).
No fuel is required for this sun-charged ship -- a significant implication for disaster relief situations, remote areas with no infrastructure and for places that cannot be reached on one tank of fuel.
Of course, as The Star notes, despite its positive attributes, the plane can also be used for less-than-desirable applications, like mining companies wanting to open up remote northern areas for exploitation.
Jay Godsall, who founded SolarShip in 2006, saw the need for such a design since he was a mere sixteen years old and running his own lawn mowing business in Ottawa. The story of how he came about with the idea and the years of staying true to his dream deserves a read -- despite his economics thesis in the 1980's on using airships to further the economic development of Africa was "rejected as lunacy," he decided to persist.
SolarShip now has three sizes of airships on the board, each serving different purposes. In addition to a test flight of a small ship suitable for carrying medical supplies in 2012, they plan to have a public demonstration of them in flight over Ontario by 2013.