August 21, 2015
By JIM NASH
INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY
The solar-powered Solar Impulse 2, piloted by Andre Borschberg, approaches Kalaeloa Airport in Hawaii. View Enlarged Image
Overheated lithium batteries for the solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 this summer forced the single-seat experimental plane to sit out the winter in a hangar in Hawaii, part-way through its historic round-the-world flight.
But dreams of solar-powered flight are taking off despite this grounding.
An unlikely, but well-heeled trio of corporate giants has an interest in Swiss-based Solar Impulse’s progress. Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) and Airbus Group (OTCPK: EADSY) each are working on their own solar-powered, unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. Several other smaller firms worldwide also are involved in solar-powered drones.
Google and Facebook say they want to loft autonomous aircraft, with wingspans rivaling those of Boeing (NYSE: BA) 767 jets, miles in the air. Their main goal is for the aircraft to perform the same relay functions as cell towers over areas around the globe that have yet to connect online.
Airbus sees a future for its Zephyr aircraft in communications, weather, surveillance and other areas.
The goal is to keep these planes continuously in the air for months or years.
“It’s definitely a niche area,” said Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “But eventually, anything you can do with communication satellites, you will be able to do (with solar drones).”
Airbus calls its vehicles high-altitude pseudo-satellites, or HAPS, which describes most solar drone projects. Small drones, including those that Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) says it will use to deliver goods, can’t reliably run on solar power because they are often below sun-shielding clouds.
Replacing satellites is an attractive opportunity. Satellites are expensive to develop and launch, and it is getting more difficult to find open orbits among all the other craft, Blades says.
He estimates that, for the foreseeable future, it would cost 10 times as much for satellite development and placement as it would to develop a drone and get it properly positioned and operating.
Cost comparisons are difficult, though, because no company has had a drone up for longer than a couple weeks.
The technology for Google, Facebook and Airbus is largely the same. All top surfaces of an ultra-light and spindly aircraft are covered in dark sheets of hair-thin solar cells that charge a heavy load of batteries. The engines and instruments feed off the batteries.
Airbus would get a direct return on its investment through aircraft sales. Google’s and Facebook’s gains would come primarily from bringing more people online, people who presumably would use their services and click their ads.
Facebook executives have said they will not be building and operating networks, but instead will develop the technology far enough to entice others to enter the market. Some observers have suggested the Internet giants might license or hand the technology to a telecom company such as Vodafone (NASDAQ: VOD).
None of these efforts calls for piloted aircraft, much less passengers. And for good reason.
The amount of energy needed to get multiple people appreciable distances with any degree of comfort on a solar plane is beyond current capabilities. No one is predicting when that will change.
In a statement answering a query from IBD, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said that the agency “has not been approached about the application of it (solar systems) in a design for commercial aircraft. As cost beneficial as solar power can be, it still has issues that would limit its application in commercial aircraft — for example, the effect of the weight of the solar panels on fuel burn and lack of sun in certain areas of the country and at various times of day.”
Andre Borschberg, co-founder of Solar Impulse and one of the pilots, agrees. He told IBD that it will be some years before this technology appears in general aviation, much less commercial aviation.
But there are implications for many industries today.
The Solar Impulse 2’s electric engines, for instance, are 97% efficient. By comparison, at best 30% of a gasoline engine’s energy actually translates into a vehicle’s motion, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
There are no aviation-industry sponsors of the Solar Impulse project, Borschberg says. But a number of companies did put money down on this technology demonstration. Backers include Google, robotics firm ABB (NYSE: ABB), consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and industrial firm Siemens (OTCPK: SIEGY).
Will the aviation industry get involved with solar? “I wouldn’t say this won’t ever change, but it’s not happening soon,” said Blades.
Traveling in the Solar Impulse 2, says the company, is a test of will requiring self-hypnosis to handle stress. To save energy, there only bare provisions and no room to literally stretch one’s legs. The toilet is built into the cockpit seat.
All solar-powered aircraft are designed to fly at 60,000 to 90,000 feet, where they will be above weather and commercial air traffic, and exposed to the sun’s rays all day.
Airbus’ Zephyr drone has flown higher than 61,600 feet, and has remained airborne for more than 336 hours. Neither Facebook’s nor Google’s plane has proved it can fly as high as the Zephyr.
Google, which already has a balloon-centric high-altitude effort called Project Loon, bought a small New Mexico company, Titan Aerospace, in April 2014 to acquire its Solara 50 aircraft.
Facebook last year bought U.K. startup Ascenta for its Aquila solar-powered drone project for a reported $20 million.
“Airbus is the furthest ahead,” Philip Finnegan, director of corporate research for consulting firm Teal Group, told IBD.
Airbus rival Boeing also is involved with pseudo-satellite research in the form of its stubby Phantom Eye. However, Finnegan pointed out, “their approach to longer-endurance systems focuses on using hydrogen” for fuel. So far, the drone has stayed aloft for 10 days at a time.
Putting a drone above the weather for extended periods of time is still several years off, he says.
“There’s a lot of potential in terms of cutting the cost” of communication relays, Finnegan said. “But there are significant technological problems—durability, the efficiency of solar cells. This is a technology that’s still proving itself.”
In the meantime, Borschberg says the Solar Impulse 2 will return to the air next April, on its way to its around-the-world starting point, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.