In 2016, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the founders of Solar Impulse, completed the first circumnavigation of the globe with no fuel. With their solar aircraft, they flew 40,000 km to promote the use of clean technologies. Piccard gave an opening keynote at EBACE in Geneva today, urging the aviation industry to take things forward from here.
Piccard also gave some ‘rules’ to follow to succeed with game-changing innovation:
Don’t try to convince everybody: If you do that, you will never get started. When Piccard first had his idea to fly without fuel using solar energy, he said many people, especially experts, told him it was impossible – because it had never been done before.
Piccard told the business aviation delegates gathered: “You will never get the support of everybody. You have to get the support and endorsement of one person or institution that will give you credibility – in my case it was the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who backed a feasibility study.”
Make it a win-win situation: There has to be something in it for your partners, Piccard said. They won’t only support your dream. In Solar Impulse’s case, EPFL wanted to foster better collaboration across 14 new labs. They ran the feasability study – nine months later Solar Impulse had the results. They needed a 72-metre wingspan and the weight had to be less than a family car.
Shout about it: Piccard said he held a press conference early in the process to announce the plan to fly around the world without fuel. Many of his team were reticent and felt it was too soon. However, Piccard said: “If you work on something really difficult, don’t do it alone where nobody knows about it because it will be very tempting to give up.”
He added: “You have to announce it publicly, and when the entire world knows exactly what you are doing, then you can never give up…you are ‘condemned to succeed’.”
Work with people who are completely different to you: Piccard said: “If you work with similar people, you will have no added value. You might have a great friendship but no creativity… you will not gain any new knowledge or experience. You will never be able to succeed.”
For example, he said: “André is a jetfighter pilot, I’m a balloonist. He’s an engineer, I am a psychiatrist…I learned something from him, he learned something from me and we built a third experience together. One and one has to be three: Him, me and us.”
Think outside the system: When it came to support for the Solar Impulse build, Piccard got his first “cold shower” when he realised the aviation industry would not do it. They thought it was either too crazy or wouldn’t work. In the end he turned to a shipping company. Aviation companies weren’t interested in funding the project either, apart from Dassault, but Piccard secured support from industries such as insurance, telecommunications, watches, elevators and even champagne.
Piccard said: “It’s quite logical really – it’s not the people who are selling the best candles who invented the lightbulb; it’s other people.” He gave the Tesla car as another example of innovation coming from outside established industry experts.
The art of the possible
Piccard said that Solar Impulse has shown what can be done with clean technology in aviation – and beyond. He urged the industry to take it forward, commercialise it and scale it up. “We can now reconcile ecology and economy,” he said.
He commented: “Within 10 years we will have airplanes flying full electric with 50 people on board.”
These will likely be short and medium haul at first and offer new commercial opportunities: “You can land very close to cities; there’s no noise and no pollution. You have efficient engines lighter airplanes and a completely new offer for the customers,” he said.
Change your thinking
In two years Piccard predicted we will have electric drones in cities, such as those being developed by Uber.
He concluded that change is now exponential, not linear and we have to think that way too: “Nothing is impossible in reality, only in our minds,” Piccard said. “Aviation has such a power to inspire people. It always goes a step further; it always goes into the unknown; it always goes into the future. We have to lead that movement and continue to show that the world will change thanks to aviation. Today we have all the clean tech to do it.”
Look out for our video interview with Piccard coming soon.