Selling solar flight

Maybe you saw these two stories recently.

One was of a development of high glamor and excitement. You will see much more about it. But it probably will only affect your life if you play with the big chips.

The other development was not exactly ho-hum. But it is far less glamorous. Yet it may eventually impact millions of lives.

The first was that Virgin got federal permission to charter flights into space. In its Galactic airplane.

If you can pony up $250,000 you can play space cadet. No, you cannot use your miles for this. For the big bucks you can fly at four times the speed of sound – 3000 mph. You can experience a few minutes of weightlessness.

Will Virgin ever lower the price to within the reach of the average family? Doubtful.

The less glamorous development? A gigantic plane powered by only the sun took to the air for two hours. In Switzerland. This is the plane scheduled to fly ‘round the world, non-stop, in 2015. In the day it will fly on solar power. At night it will also fly on solar power. Power generated during the day, stored in batteries.

The plane boasts huge wings. They are packed with solar panels. It flies at 90 mph.

Here is why this development may affect millions of people in years ahead. Scientists will continue to develop materials that are stronger and lighter. These will make this type plane stronger yet lighter.

They will continue to develop ever more efficient solar panels. These will provide higher amounts of electricity from less surface.

They will build lighter engines that are more powerful. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect small versions of solar planes to fly at 150 to 250 mph some day.

In other words people of the future may fly in small solar planes from Jamestown to Albany. From Utica to Scranton.

For 100 years people have dreamed such dreams. That small planes would become as practical as cars. A helicopter in every back yard sort of dream.

The reason such dreams were dashed is simple. Fuel costs too much, way too much. And it weighs too much.

Costly heavy fuel is why round trips from Albany to Wilkes-Barre start at $540. You will spend thousands to charter a plane from Buffalo to Binghamton.

Imagine an era when there are no fuel costs. When the expense of flying 100 miles is the same as flying 500 miles or 1000 miles.

Imagine small planes – perhaps helicopters – covering distances at no cost. Imagine robots flying them. We will soon have robotic cars. Why not robotic planes? A 10 lb. robot will make piloted solar planes 200 lbs. lighter.

This will not happen in my lifetime. It may never happen. But how many people said “It’ll never happen.” about the high-tech wonders you take for granted today?

My hunch is that practical solar flying may well come about. Because the trend lines are running in its favor. One trend is that materials keep growing thinner and lighter but stronger. Another is that solar panels are growing more efficient by the year.

Solar planes will overcome an obstacle that has dogged fliers for a century. They will eliminate the cost of fuel per mile flown.

For my grandchildren I see a sunny future for flying.

From in Morgan.

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