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Ballooning for sustainability: Bertrand Piccard and his vision

by BalkanIdentity Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 06:08:21 PM EST

I just attended an inspiring lecture by Dr. Bertrand Piccard.

First a little background, Bertrand was born in a family of explorers. His grandfather Auguste is credited with inventing pressurized cabins for aircraft and, for a time, held both the highest altitude and deepest dive records. His father, Jacques, designed and built the deep diving vessel Trieste that managed to dive 10km below surface at the deepest point of the ocean at the Marianna Trench. This feat was not repeated with manned vessels since and currently there is no operational vessel that can readily achieve such depths. Bertrand himself continued the tradition of pushing the frontier by completing the first round-the-world trip in a balloon (the Breitling orbiter) which was also the longest in duration flight achieved. He is also a psychiatrist and hang-glider pilot champion.

Diary rescue by Migeru

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So where does sustainability fit? Well, Bertrand used his achievements (and those of his illustrious family) as metaphors.

In referring to his father's dive, he pointed at the discovery of live fish at the ocean bottom. Not only did this provide an unexpected finding to biologists, he argued that it conclusively showed that there is oxygen at those depths. Oxygen can only reach there through circulation from the surface and so by implication there are currents from the bottom to the surface. This finding would cause a slight shift in the paradigm: deep sea trenches were not the safe dumpster bins for humankind that were thought to be. Toxins and radioactive waste thrown in there would come back to haunt our biosphere sooner or later.

I use this as one example to illustrate the way that he described his explorations: not as innately valuable neither as means to an end but rather as narrations and parables of aspects of everyday life.

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Ballooning thus became a metaphor for life, life attuned to success. Unlike the aggressive can-do-what-I-want-now way of living that is passed as the ideal in western societies, he argued that ballooning provides a much better metaphor. In fact, the undercurrents and forces in our lives are too strong to go against. Trying to push back against the prevailing winds costs us in resources and is usually counterproductive.

The balloon can instead search the atmosphere by changing altitude and looking for the currents more conducive to the general direction that we would like to head. Changing altitude can be achieved by throwing out ballast; the entrenched beliefs, the inability to listen, the egomaniacal certainties can be the ballast that people could throw out to explore the potential of their lives. But this does not necessarily imply a "go with the wind" attitude.

Weathermen are necessary for any flight that has a purpose. Weather forecasters are those with a vision of complex system interactions. Those that can see long-term implications of actions. Academics and politicians he implied should be the weathermen in our society. While plodding along at 40mph during the fourth day of his around the world flight, he and his co-pilot decided to search for a different wind pattern despite being instructed against doing so by their weathermen. After finding an 80mph current following approximately the right direction, they felt smug and called back to announce that they could do better than the experts. They were instructed to revert to the original altitude because while they may be temporarily flying faster they would soon end being ahead of the front and heading towards the North Pole, a largely undesirable outcome that was not apparent and instead needed systemic knowledge and forethought.

Even so, when landing after the completion of the flight, they had only minimal reserves of propane and even a minor delay could have resulted in missing their target. "That is bad planning," he said, and the metaphor now reflected humanity's management of the earth's natural resources.

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The Solar Impulse, his next endeavor, of building and flying an aircraft that takes off unaided and flies around the world relying entirely on solar power is designed with specific focus on sustainability. If he and his team can do this unbelievable achievement for a plane with existing technologies (20% efficiency of the PVs and current NiMh batteries) then we, ordinary people, should be able to achieve much less aggressive targets for our cars and appliances.

In talking about all these, he mentioned the issues of equity. Pictures from Mumbai underscored the chasm between haves and have-nots. Maybe calculated for a different audience, he argued that it is in the self-interest of the richer to provide for the poor lest they face the consequence of revolt. Maybe he intentionally forgot the building of police forces with military training and of mercenary armies, maybe he did not want to argue from a spiritual perspective. I did not always agree with what he said and certainly have not verified some of his assertions. From what I described, he may come off sounding cheesy and new agey inspirational. That was not the case even if he closed the speech with "Imagine" ... There is no denying that his vision is gripping and with a good chance of success.

Good luck, Dr. Piccard!

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Images courtesy of www.bertrandpiccard.com and www.solarimpulse.com

Hopefully some of you may find this description of interest. I was quite impressed by his demeanor and wanted to share the ideas he brought forward. And flying around the world in a solar powered plane is quite far reaching indeed !

Orthodoxy is not a religion.
by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Thu Nov 15th, 2007 at 08:02:14 PM EST
For a bit of technical info.

The Solar Impulse in its final version is designed to have a wingspan of about 80m (i.e. equal to the wingspan of an A380) while its take-off weight should be 2ton or less (the A380 by comparison with the ability to carry 550 passengers has a take-off weight of 560ton). Oh, and given the low power availability from the sun (about 12PS or equal to the Kitty Hawk Wright Brothers first machine) constrains the take-off speed to 45mph and a max air speed at 39.000ft altitude to about 80mph.

Making that long and thin wing is really amazing yet I would not want to go close to bad turbulence riding on it :-)

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 07:57:11 AM EST
A few years ago, th solar impulse people wre talking with my university about potential cooperation. I'm not sure if anything came from it, but in the meantime we did a student project making a rough design for such an aircraft. The Solar impulse manager already mentioned our design had very similar parameters to what they were thinking of, and indeed, the numbers you mention here sound familiar. ( I guess I am a bit proud of that)

So assuming this design is somewhat similar to ours in more respects than just these numbers, I can make some educated guesses on the project.

Our design needed a lot of batteries, something like 40% of total weight if I remember correct. That means   you have even less weight to build the wing. In fact we gave the aircraft a 'gravity battery', letting it climbs 10 kilometer during the day while gliding downwards at night. The high altitudes their site mentions suggest they have similar plans, but I am not sure about that. ( they might also just fly high to go faster).

As their site mentions, you will need wings made of only a few tenth of a millimeter material thickness.
The main reason you can do this is that the wing is mostly carrying itself. In a normal aircraft, the wing produces lift that counteracts the weight of the fuselage, so there is a distance between the application of the load and the lift force. This creates a bending effect that is usually the heaviest load on the structure.

However, in this design most of the weight is in the wings themselves, and the solar panels on top and the batteries divided in it. In a sense, you can imagine a short-winged aircraft whose wings are carrying the fuselage, and then add extra wing at the tips that only carries itself and the solar panels on top. If you look at the Helios unmanned aircraft, it had the same effect even stronger ( it didn't have a fuselage at all).

In the exercise, we had to assume very positive figures to make it work at all ( that is, extremely strong and stiff materials, the best solar panels and batteries, the best engines, extremely tuned aerodynamics). My personal opinion was that we had no margin at all left, and therefore really not a viable design.

So, I am really looking forward to see if they can make this work. It would definitly stretch the limits of what is possible.

by GreatZamfir on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 11:17:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On  another point, we also estimated it would cost a small fortune. We said 25 million, based on some very crude guesses, but their manager Borschberg didn't want to comment on this number. I suspect it may well be too low.
by GreatZamfir on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 11:27:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for the information!

The current budget is $60M for the first prototype phase so your estimate was (as is usually the case) on the low side.

This is such an interesting project -- of course it is not the holy grail in aviation but it can provide inspiration. Your university might have been lost a chance there :-)

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 04:27:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking of sustainable aerotech:


The idea that an airplane can fly endlessly carrying heavy loads of passengers and cargo without burning any fuel, can stop and hover in place weightless at any time, and can takeoff and land vertically is a radical departure from accepted thought concerning aviation. This new reality that is made possible by the invention of Robert Hunt's astounding new hybrid aircraft is Hunt Aviation’s vision of the future of aviation. Our aircraft is a rigid glider made of lightweight composite materials. The new hybrid “gravity-powered aircraft” is formed by merging the capabilities of the following devices into a single new aircraft apparatus: (1) an aircraft capable of aerostatic (lighter-than-air) lift to gain altitude; and, (2) a glider aircraft capable of aerodynamic lift, having a high glide ratio to accomplish long range gliding; and, (3) an innovative new extremely low drag vertical axis wind turbine that is capable of harnessing the force of the wind to generate power as the aircraft glides upward via positive buoyancy and glides downward via gravity acceleration.

They have a nice video of it too.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 04:12:17 PM EST
I am not sure if you are taking this serious. If you are, believe me, don't. This machine is a complicated version of the old idea of putting a windmill on your car to charge the batteries that power the engine that drives the car so there is wind for the windmill. It would work in a perfectly frictionless environment, but in such an environment you wouldn't need propulsion for movement anyway (think satellites).

Even as such a system would not allow fuelless motion, it might be very efficient. Jet aircraft go through the trouble of climbing to and flying at 12 kilometers ( and regaining part of that gravity energy on the way down), because flight is more efficient up there. Gliders can fly almost for free by extracting energy from thermal rising winds. Blimps require little power because they can fly slow (not because they use no power to stay afloat). Possibly the Hunt aircraft would open such an 'effiency niche', even if it is not really a fuelless aircraft.

But their website never mentions how this would happen, and more specifically how their aircraft is going to do this better than existing gliders, blimps and autogyros  from whch they borrow elements. This suggests to me that they are either frauds or clueless.


by GreatZamfir on Tue Nov 20th, 2007 at 06:06:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice idea! Thanks for pointing it out!

I had seen the same principle applied to automated perpetual movement submarines but it is so much more interesting in the air. I don't know about passenger but it might be used for some type of freight... Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 04:31:07 PM EST

Orthodoxy is not a religion.
by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Fri Nov 16th, 2007 at 04:32:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sustainability is sexy ;-) Just as eating more does not give you better chances for dating, so limitless procreation and expansion does not really improve life and survivability of your descendants in the long run. To prosper through all times, humanity must look for sustainability - or otherwise, this civilization is a looser.
by das monde on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 11:39:27 PM EST
My question is why did his descendant, Jean-Luc, drop one of the 'c's in Piccard?  Obviously the 24th century captain of the Enterprise has to be the same family.

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan
by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Wed Nov 21st, 2007 at 03:22:30 AM EST

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