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How do you design a solar airplane?

“If you have to give something a shape, you first have to think of the space you have to build it in.”

This is the starting block of Solar Impulse’s design team. It’s just like when you move into a new home; you look at the house plan, imagine the space you have available and decide which piece of furniture fits where, seeking the most practical but also most esthetic setting. Jonas Schär, and his team of designers do pretty much that: a sort of “interior design” of the airplane’s silhouette – and the silhouette, as we have seen in the first article of this series, is given by the concept.

Led by Jonas Schär, Solar Impulse’s Design team consists of seven people who are responsible for defining every minute detail of the aircraft. The guiding maxim is that the aircraft should be able to fly hence, every component must be carefully studied, first separately and then as a whole, religiously abiding to the maxim. Consequently, this means that everything must be designed to be as light as physically possible.

I like to think of the designers as the magical funambulists because they have absolutely no margin for error in “furnishing” the aircraft silhouette’s “empty” space. Every component has to fit into the overall restrictive weight requirements while also fulfilling its own proper function as efficiently as possible.

Each member of this team is assigned a component of the aircraft which they bring to life via 3D engineering software. Believe me, although I’m not an engineer myself, seeing the virtual 3D drawing of an airplane’s part spinning at all angles on the computer screen is simply cool. Unfortunately, every time they show me a new component, I inevitably unveil my ignorance and ask “where does this part belong”? It seems my passion for Legos as a child did not provide me with the necessary skills to meet the particular requirements for this seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

If designing HB-SIA was unbelievably difficult because of it being the first aircraft of its kind, the challenge is even greater for HB-SIB. Why you ask? Optimizing an already good system is a brain-teaser in of itself requiring a good degree of skill, physics, common sense and good “interior designer” intuition. What a cocktail!

But jokes aside, HB-SIB might look like HB-SIA; but the similarities end there. HB-SIB will not only be 11% larger, but many other features have evolved starting from the wingspan, the motors, the pilot’s equipment and the size of the cockpit.

Asking Jonas how he felt when he was told he would be building the solar airplane of its kind: “I didn’t fully realize it back then. I was maybe young enough to just proceed forward and come-up with ideas to make things happen. But I was never alone, and it’s still the case.”  He isn’t in fact alone, aside from the necessary information exchange between teams; the aircraft’s design is a team result of (in the photo, from left to right starting from back): Pascal Barmet, Frederick Tischhauser, Michael McGrath, Jonas Schär, Oliver Ensslin, Simon Bodmer, Lukas Staub and Martin Meyer.

Abracadabra!

 

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

“If you have to give something a shape, you first have to think of the space you have to build it in.”

This is the starting block of Solar Impulse’s design team. It’s just like when you move into a new home; you look at the house plan, imagine the space you have available and decide which piece ...



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