Solar Impulse: Finding Harmony between Technology and Nature

Wednesday 29th June 2016

The aviation industry told us it was impossible to build an airplane that could fly day and night without a drop of fuel. In 2015, Solar Impulse proved that it could be done, and together with last week’s transatlantic flight, we proved that change is possible when we have the right mindset and are not afraid to push back our own limits.

Solar Impulse is a demonstration of energy efficiency and smart energy management, made possible thanks to all our partners’ technologies. It is also a great example of how technology today has become a great game changer in so many different ways. Who could have imagined, even a few decades ago, that such things as applications on our smartphones would transform the way we consume media, access information, navigate, conduct our personal banking, shop and even know what to wear in the morning? Solar Impulse would not exist if it were not for the technologies used during all phases of the project: designing and building the airplane and managing flight tests and missions.

On the other hand, however, we also turned to nature to build an airplane that is almost silent, able to feel each movement of the atmosphere and which relies on the sun as its only source of energy. Flying across oceans with solar energy could only be done by finding the right balance between technology and nature. So why are they so often pitched against each other? Why can’t they be more in harmony for the long-term interest of humanity?

In flying over the Pacific Ocean with Solar Impulse 2, I was reminded how the Polynesian navigators reached their destinations using only the information nature provided them with. Thousands of years ago, they were already travelling all over the Pacific Ocean thanks to non-technological navigation methods. This meant they had to stay awake as much as possible to observe the stars and closely follow the way their ship moved with the waves, the wind, the sea currents. It was all about observing nature and observing oneself.

The native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson told me that he takes six to eight 20-minute naps a day during his voyages. That’s exactly what I trained to do before flying Si2 from Japan to Hawaii. It’s the minimum amount of sleep required over many days, while at the same time being sufficient to maintain one’s attention span and ability to concentrate.

When I got close to the Hawaiian Islands, I started to hear the first sounds on the radio between the airplane and the Air Traffic Control centers. And while I could not see the islands, I knew they were not far away. These radio frequencies were silent during the previous four days and nights as I was too far from other airplanes or any airport. It reminded me that navigators would try to spot birds when they thought they were within 100 miles of an island. By looking at how and where these birds would fly, they would then understand if they were moving away from or approaching an island. I could only imagine how happy they must have been to see the first birds dancing in the air over their ship, similar to how happy I felt when I heard the first radio chatter and knew I was slowly reaching my destination.

Today, we are so dependent on technology that we tend to lose the skills we developed over the last centuries. Which is why I am so delighted to see the work done by Nainoa to revive what his ancestors learned by observing nature and their own emotions. The challenge now is to get the best of both worlds: using technology in a way that creates a real long-term added value for mankind, while continuing to explore the outer and inner worlds to keep ourselves fully aligned and in harmony with nature.

This blog post was originally published here.