Solar Impulse: A new chapter in the Piccard family saga

How the Abu Dhabi launch of the Solar Impulse continues the legacy of the greatest explorers the world has ever seen.

Peter Iantorno March 24, 2015

The concept is simple, yet absolutely pioneering. Solar Impulse, an aeroplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night and being powered only by the sun, is attempting to fly around the world without using a drop of fuel.

If it succeeds, it could change the world forever, clearing the path towards the mass use of clean technology. But if it fails, it could be back to square-one and anther nail in the coffin for what have, as yet, been unsuccessful attempts to save the future of our fossil fuel-dependent world.

No pressure then for the pilots, but in Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss explorer, doctor, psychiatrist, public speaker and all-round inspirational character, the Solar Impulse team couldn't have found a better qualified man.

"My life and the life of my family has to do with exploration, with adventure," Piccard once said. "My grandfather was the first man in the stratosphere, and my father was the first to touch the deepest point in the ocean... For me, adventure and exploration is something in the blood."Bertrand Piccard and André BborschbergWith a family like that, Betrand Piccard was always going to have to do something special to live up to his forefathers, and ever since he was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 1, 1958, it was clear that failure wasn't a word in Piccard's vocabulary.

As a child he witnessed his father, Jacques, go deeper under the ocean than anyone had ever gone before, as his submarine the Bathyscaphe Trieste, came to rest on the ocean floor in the Marianas Trench, some 10,916 metres under the water's surface.

And it was a similar case for Jacques, who himself witnessed his father, Auguste, become the first man to reach the stratosphere, using a stratospheric hot air balloon with an airtight cabin he'd invented, to climb to heights of 15,780 metres in 1931 and 16,201 metres in 1932, studying cosmic rays and being able to view the curvature of the Earth.

In fact it really was Auguste, who counted the likes of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie among his friends, who laid the foundations for the incredible Piccard family legacy. Not only did he invent the pressurised cabin we now see used on planes all over the world, but he also invented the the most accurate scales and seismographs of the time, and the very submarine that Jacques piloted to the bottom of the ocean.

He also wrote a revolutionary paper on the use of solar energy and heat pumps in 1942 and called for greater efforts to save the environment and protect natural resources long before anyone else had started worrying about the subject. Such was his influence, he was even Hergé's inspiration for Professor Calculus in the Tintin comics! Auguste PiccardA journey that could change the world

Today, Bertrand is very much following in the great footsteps of his father and grandfather, as as he co-pilots the Solar Impulse (along with his Swiss compatriot, André Borschberg) on its epic, and potentially world-altering, around-the-globe journey.

After launching in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015, the revolutionary craft set course for what promises to be a long and tortuous route, comprising 12 legs - including the treacherous journey across the Atlantic from New York into Europe and the long crossing from China to Hawaii, which could take up to five days and nights of non-stop flying - and ultimately landing back in Abu Dhabi, hopefully, by August 2015.

The plane has been rigorously tested, but in a field that's still in its infancy, there's still a hell of a lot that can go wrong. Crosswinds and bad weather can have a drastic effect on the the 72-metre aircraft, leaving the 17,000 solar cells that line the top of the wings unable to sustain enough power to keep the lithium-ion batteries charged through the night. Solar ImpulseBut if anyone can pull it off, it's Bertrand Piccard - a man with the explorer's spirit coursing through his veins from three generations of utterly brilliant pioneers.

Describing August Piccard, the man who started it all, Bertrand's father Jacques once said, "My father is a scientist, you know. But during all the years he spent working in his laboratory, he always insisted on carrying out the big experiments himself, in person."

And it's that spirit of continual exploration and a passion for discovery that is now embodied by Bertrand, as he attempts to become the first man to circumnavigate the globe in a solar-powered plane, writing the next chapter in the greatest dynasty of scientific explorers the world has ever seen. Bertrand PiccardImages: To follow Bertrand and the Solar Impulse's progress visit