The listener

Solar Impulse is a very unique project and it’s also why its relationship with partners is more than just a marketing endeavor: it finances technological innovation and renewable energies; it finances solutions for the future. For this reason Solar Impulse calls these relationships partnerships.

A partnership ...

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Solar Impulse is a very unique project and it’s also why its relationship with partners is more than just a marketing endeavor: it finances technological innovation and renewable energies; it finances solutions for the future. For this reason Solar Impulse calls these relationships partnerships.

A partnership is a two-way street that requires a continuous and ongoing exchange. The person responsible for this at Solar Impulse is Marc de Borst, sound engineer turned public relations specialist. Communicating is his thing, be that through music or words, so he immediately found himself in his element when he took on the role of Partner Relations & Development Coordinator. He’s the main point of contact, the link. In close cooperation with Solar Impulse’s Marketing Managing Director, Gregory Blatt, Marc participates in the partner-search process, offers support to define new contracts and acts as the guardian of partners’ rights after the deal is sealed. He makes sure that partners have all the material and information necessary to actively communicate their partnership across various platforms. Working hand in hand with partners, Marc ensures that their contribution and role in the project is visible to the outside world. He acts like an ear when something needs to be changed. In fact, that’s Marc’s most important yet most subtle role, the ear, the listener.

Every partner is unique, like Solar Impulse, and is treated like an individual. There are partners that contribute technology to the project, others provide engineers or project management skills; others embed their specialists or provide insurance coverage for the airplane. There are also different partnership levels, different needs, and different expectations. During the Across America, for example, some partners wanted to organize events with schools, others for employees or clients and others a conference with the pilots. Marc had to coordinate their needs and seek a feasible and satisfactory option in line with their partnership agreement.

What truly drives Marc is the human contact and achieving the highest degree of satisfaction. In perfect harmony, Marc and our partners share the same vision and commitment to making this a reality. 

Positive headlines

As Solar Impulse makes its way to the nation’s capital, the first to last destination of the 2013 Across America mission, it’s a good moment to look back and review the project’s overall media coverage. The press has been extremely welcoming of Solar Impulse and over 7’000 press clippings have been recorded, ...

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As Solar Impulse makes its way to the nation’s capital, the first to last destination of the 2013 Across America mission, it’s a good moment to look back and review the project’s overall media coverage. The press has been extremely welcoming of Solar Impulse and over 7’000 press clippings have been recorded, including hits from the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Reuters (from February 28th until June 4th 2013).

Such a high level of activity was achieved thanks to the incredible effort of Solar Impulse’s Media Relations Manager, Alexandra Gindroz, and Media Relations Coordinator, Alenka Zibetto. They are the driving force behind the media and the ones that ensure journalists are not only at the right place at the right time, but they also feed the press vital information and coordinate interviews with the pilots André and Bertrand in flight and on the ground.

“The project is like a magnet, it attracts the media” revealed Alexandra. “We’re therefore more reactive than proactive” and even though the project has been around for 10 years, the excitement around it hasn’t faltered. “The project’s calendar has been able to avoid an interest slump,” continued Alexandra, “we started by presenting the airplane’s design in 2007, followed by the unveiling, the first test flights and, in 2010, the world’s first night flight purely on solar energy. In 2011, there were the European flights to Brussels and Paris and, in 2012, we achieved the first solar-powered intercontinental flight connecting Europe to Africa.”

“The project carries a positive message and, although the media generally prefer intrigues and problems, Solar Impulse proves that this project can still inspire and make people dream,” added Alenka. What drives these two young women is in fact the positive aura that surrounds the project. They both agree that it’s the first time in their careers that they’ve had to manage media requests instead of working hard to promote something.

In the United States, the relationship with the media has been very positive and enjoyable with many of them so motivated as to attend flight take-offs at the crack of dawn. Thanks to the support of Weber Shandwick and SJR, Alexandra and Alenka have had invaluable support for the US market, a market that they weren’t familiar with before the 2013 Across America mission.

Despite their efforts to ensure the message is properly reproduced, misinterpretations are inevitable. There have been publications where Solar Impulse has already flown around the world (scheduled for 2015), where Bertrand’s last name was Borschberg and vice versa for André and… where Solar Impulse was mistaken for a U.F.O! During the landing in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, the police received over 1’000 calls from worried residents. The police rushed to a helicopter and flew to the airport. In touch with the control tower, they inquired about the strange flying object, “A solar plane flying at night?” asked the policemen. Yes indeed, a solar airplane landing at night.

Doesn’t’ that just inspire you? A solar plane flying at night isn’t a dream. And what a perfect subject to lighten up our spirits: squeezed between news about the war in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear program we can also rest assured that Aliens haven’t yet invaded Planet Earth.

Where’s the rest of the Solar Impulse team?

If you’ve been watching Solar Impulse TV during today’s flight, you maybe got a feel for the size of the team. Ground Crew and Logistics teams are in the US, ensuring that flights are carried out smoothly from takeoff to landing. The Marketing & Communications team and the Mission Control Center folks (who include ...

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If you’ve been watching Solar Impulse TV during today’s flight, you maybe got a feel for the size of the team. Ground Crew and Logistics teams are in the US, ensuring that flights are carried out smoothly from takeoff to landing. The Marketing & Communications team and the Mission Control Center folks (who include meteorologists, Air Traffic Controllers and the Flight Director) are all in Payerne (Switzerland) guiding the pilot in the air with all sorts of programs and satellite connection devices. And there’s the multimedia team, split between two continents, Old and New, keeping us entertained and connected as the sleek silhouette of HB-SIA glides through the North American skies. But where are the engineers?

We’ve hidden them in a quiet place, where the skies are always grey and common distractions are scarce… in the suburbs of Zurich. We have to make sure they don’t escape, right? Jokes aside, the men and women that together have contributed to build HB-SIA are all extremely busy making a new airplane: Solar Impulse’s second generation solar-powered aircraft, HB-SIB. Indeed, if you thought the adventure was going to end with a graceful landing at New York’s JFK airport this summer, you were mistaken. The adventure will continue with the flight around the world scheduled for 2015.

The design phase of HB-SIB’s construction is complete and the Solar Impulse engineers are now busy testing parts in preparation for the assembly, scheduled for the end of 2013. Just a couple of weeks ago there was the Iron Bird – designed to test the electric wiring and overall electronics in a mock cockpit. Everything was setup as if it were the “real thing” with the hundreds of wires pulled through the full structure of the cockpit. Each part is initially tested separately, but in a complex electric system with different machines and a number of variables in play it is important to verify how everything interacts. The tests were successful. The four motors were running at 300 rpm at the same time as the other systems, such as the driver, the batteries and the balancers. A few other tests are still scheduled and, once everything is given a green light, it will be transposed as is to HB-SIB’s cockpit.

If you want to more about the Making Of HB-SIB, click here

Discussing to perfection

Just like the eternal to and fro between civil engineers and architects to find the best balance between design and a physically viable structure, a constant discourse goes on between the Design and Structural Analysis teams at Solar Impulse. The difference is that they’re all engineers, so no need to fix wacky structures ...

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Just like the eternal to and fro between civil engineers and architects to find the best balance between design and a physically viable structure, a constant discourse goes on between the Design and Structural Analysis teams at Solar Impulse. The difference is that they’re all engineers, so no need to fix wacky structures that can only exist in cartoons.

Everything that’s designed has a purpose but every part needs to fit in the greater scheme of things while also abiding to the strict lightweight guidelines. Led by Geri Piller, the Structural Analysis team consists of 4 engineers. The Design team has the concept, but it’s up to Geri’s team to decide which and how many materials to use for a given part in relation to the load that it must carry.

Geri once gave me a 101 Structural Analysis course (I would have certainly done better at reading a Chinese newspaper though), but I did manage to retain something: every material reacts differently to loads (for example, steel reacts to stress differently than carbon) and this is crucial when building a part.

For reasons of weight, the majority of HB-SIB’s structure is made out of carbon, a very peculiar material. Carbon is extremely resistant in the direction of its fibers, but extremely frail in the other. The Structural Analysis team has to decide in which direction the fibers must be placed, how thick each layer has to be and how many plies are needed. This results in complex manipulations with a specialized software (FEA finite element analysis) where the structural engineers manually input the characteristics they want and subsequently observe how the part reacts to the expected loads applied to it.

It’s not a linear process (it takes two to tango). It’s a constant back and forth between structural and design engineers, an ongoing discussion to reach perfection because, once the design and structure make the perfect match, the part is finally sent to the producer; a joint effort that gives birth to a new part. Because of the unique nature of this aircraft, every part is literally handmade. Consequently, some information can be lost in translation when transforming the software design into a manufactured part. That’s why every part needs to be tested thereafter; a crucial process Geri and his team actively engage in. Stay tuned for information about the Testing team coming soon on our blog!

In the photos: from left to right: Björn Müller, Stefan Pfammatter, Geri Piller and Dominik Dusek (adjacent), Geri Piller (bottom), FEA (top).

Follow the series here: "THE MAKING OF A SOLAR AIRPLANE"

Keeping the puzzle together

Before building anything there needs to be a concept and a design. Like when you build a house: you think about its location, its size, its architectural design and, most ...

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Before building anything there needs to be a concept and a design. Like when you build a house: you think about its location, its size, its architectural design and, most importantly, the thickness of your wallet. You obviously can’t start with the roof without a foundation and you certainly can’t install the bathroom without first connecting the drain pipe to the grid.  

Once the parts are designed, who puts the puzzle together in a timely and coherent manner? Someone has to see the big picture, juggling deadlines, budget and production. At Solar Impulse, that role is attributed to Robert Fraefel, Head of Airplane Development.

Röbi, as the team likes to call him, is the man behind the scenes, the choreographer of it all. He motivates the engineers, encourages them when obstacles arise and stimulates them to pick up the pace when a deadline is approaching. He’s also somewhat of a public relations figure, meeting with dozens of suppliers and producers to seek their collaboration and ensure their deliveries meet the strict quality requirements.

An engineer with a Formula 1 background, Röbi immediately found himself in his element working for a project that pushes the boundaries; but the parallel ends there. At Solar Impulse it’s hard to plan because “we don’t know how long it takes to develop a part until it’s ready for production”. At Formula 1 “you already know, more or less, how many parts you need, how they will look like”; you always have a starting block as opposed to Solar Impulse.

When I think about the number of factors and variables involved in the construction of such a unique aircraft, I can’t help but wonder how Röbi’s hair hasn’t turned grey yet. Between the engineers in Dübendorf and Payerne, he has to regularly commute between the French and German-speaking regions of Switzerland to ensure everything is evolving smoothly.

“You have to start with something even without knowing the whole story and just go step by step.” Revealed Röbi during one of our conversations, “we tend to want to know everything from the beginning, but we have to just take the first step, advance a little and then go forward to the next keeping the target in your head.” That’s Solar Impulse’s philosophy: step-by-step and we eventually get there. 

Just as when André and Bertrand were already thinking of flying a solar aircraft without even having the hardware, Röbi started working on the project 7 years ago not knowing if it would actually be able to fly; but step by step…

Follow the series here: "MAKING OF A SOLAR AIRPLANE"


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