The Don Rowe Blog

Jan 16

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Power Inverters And Solar-Powered Airplanes

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Yes sir, believe it or not, solar-powered airplanes have been in existence since 1957 but the real thrust of these solar sensations didn’t really take off until the 1970’s.  Both manned and unmanned aircraft that rely on power inverters to convert the sun’s energy into useable electricity are still, somewhat, experimental, but some of the early pioneering in this field show promise for greater advancements.

A Few Remarkable Flights:

Here are a few of many successful solar-powered flights that relied on power-inverters to complete their ‘missions’:

1:  Paris to London:

In 1981, a solar-powered craft flew 163 miles from Paris to London and was in the air for more than 5 hours at an altitude of over 14,000 feet.

2:  Across America:

In 1990, another solar-powered craft became the first to completely cross the United States using a small battery-pack charged by solar cells on the wings.  The on-board power inverters converted the Direct Current (DC) energy from the sun into Alternate Current (AC), making the now-useable energy as a power source to complete the across-America journey.

3:  Spain to Morocco:

In 2010, a prototype plane completed a 1.5 hour test-flight by using 11,000 solar cells on its wings and horizontal stabilizer.  Power from the solar cells drove the 11-foot propellers which turned at speeds of 400 rpm.   Cruising speed was about 35 miles/h, flying at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet.  In 2012, this same plane completed its first intercontinental flight of 19 hours from Madrid, Spain to Rabat, Morocco.

Pioneers in the field of converted energy continue to make advancements with solar-powered planes; and their research is paying off as they look forward to an around-the-world flight scheduled for 2015.

So How Does This Work?

Solar planes are created to be as lightweight as possible and use as many solar panels as possible, in addition to using charged batteries.

The solar panels are the heart and soul of these types of planes and differ greatly from solar panels used on satellites and solar homes–they are not rigid, bulky or heavy.  Solar panels for planes are only millimeters thick; and to give you a clearer perspective, one millimeter equals close to 4/100 of an inch.  These specialized, ultra-thin panels are even wired to the propellers.

The propellers use a combination of battery power and solar energy to get them started.  Even though solar planes take off slowly, that won’t stop some of these more advanced, very determined  birds from eventually reaching an incredible 65,000 feet (very few planes fly at this level) where the plane can, practically, glide.

If a pilot were  planning to stay up overnight, he would make sure the battery were charged to run the propeller, otherwise, losing altitude would result.  During flight, the energy source switches between battery and solar power.   During the time the sun is readily available, converted solar energy runs the propellers  and charges batteries or fuel cells.

Oh The Uses!

Though solar planes won’t be flying masses of people anytime soon due to limited weight restrictions, these incredible machines are vital for applications in the military, weather and forest-fire-related functions.  Militarily, they can hover over a spot with cameras and other sensors, and take uninterrupted photos or videos of opposing military maneuvers for years and can fly high, making them very stealthy.

Solar planes are much more cost effective than fuel-powered counterparts and can watch forest fires for prolonged periods of time and continuously track incoming hurricanes.

Thanks to power-inverters, converted solar energy can get these birds off the ground and into the highest reaches to do what only they can do best!

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