The Amazing Journey
An amazing journey was completed on 26 July 2016 — the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft landed in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, completing the world’s first circumnavigation flight by an aircraft powered only by solar energy.
Félicitations Bertrand et André!
Solar Impulse 2 began its round-the-world trip by taking off from Abu Dhabi on 9 March 2015. The trip was done in multiple legs because it was a single-person plane with an average speed of 75 km/hr, so they needed to land periodically for the two pilots to switch (Betrand Piccard and André Borschberg). The circumnavigation also had a number of delays due to technical challenges (like batteries overheating) and unfavorable weather.
If you want to watch the last 1 ½ hours of the journey, check out the official “LEG 17 LIVE: Solar Impulse Airplane – Landing in Abu Dhabi” video on YouTube, embedded below. To me, as someone who has followed the project for many years, it was an inspirational video and a very moving finale to their epic flight.
Culture And Personality Of An Innovation Team
In addition to the awesomeness of the completion of a 42,000 km journey, two highlights for me of the final hour of flight were:
- Design of the NEXT Solar Impulse aircraft. While talking with the ground crew shortly before landing, Bertrand suggested a design improvement for “the next airplane” — adding a slot by the window “to get the air inside” for better ventilation in the cockpit (at ~ 0:50 in the video). The Solar Impulse 2’s mission engineer landing coordinator (I’m not an aviation person, so I’m sure that’s not the correct term) told Bertrand he looks forward to working on the design of the next plane. To me that was such a cool moment. Their focus on the future and continual striving for the next improvement are two hallmarks of disruptive innovation teams.
- Bertrand’s personality and humor. When the Solar Impulse 2’s landing coordinator told Bertrand the airport wind conditions were four to six knots, Bertrand replied that he hoped the coordinator said “four to six” rather than forty-six! (at ~ 1:31 in the video) The cofounder of the project is so relaxed at what could be a very tense moment and is so comfortable with other team members that he can joke about a critical landing factor being open to misinterpretation.
Those two highlights speak volumes about Bertrand as a cofounder of the Solar Impulse cofounder and about the culture of the Solar Impulse project team. That’s the kind of innovation team I would love to be a member of and that’s the type of emerging technology project I am always looking for.
The Solar Impulse 2 landing was indeed a Momentous Event, and the project was truly disruptive innovation — the first time in aviation history that a plane has flown around the world without using ANY fossil fuel. It was also, as Bertrand said shortly after emerging from the aircraft, a first in the history of energy.
Disruptive Innovations Take Time
But the landing was also a reminder that disruptive innovations are quite often not an “overnight success.” They usually take years of hard work, and they build on the work of other innovators. The circumnavigation flight took 16 months from inaugural take-off to final landing. The Solar Impulse project itself began in 2003, so it took 13 years for Bertrand and André’s initial vision to be achieved.
Innovation teams are usually just that — teams. As one of the members of the Solar Impulse team said in the above video, to them the letters in “team” stand for “together each achieve more.” The picture below shows a small portion of the team at the Abu Dhabi airport, representing Switzerland, Monaco, and the United Arab Emirates. The entire team was a partnership of many more people, countries and companies, and it took that diverse team working together to be able to fly around the world, achieving more than any of them could have individually.
Innovating In Obscurity
Another disruptive innovation lesson is that although the innovators and people they work closely with are excited about and in awe of the achievement of an ambitious dream, the accomplishment will probably happen in relative obscurity from the general public.
The Prime Minister of Monaco told the Solar Impulse team, shortly after the Abu Dhabi final landing, “You have started to write a new page of humanity’s history.” (at ~ 1:52 in the video) That sounds like the description of an event that most of humanity should be aware of. But most of humanity doesn’t know what Solar Impulse 2 is, and most are unaware that a plane flew around the world powered only by solar energy. I’ve talked to at least fifty people about Solar Impulse in the past six years, and not a single one of them had heard of the project or knew what it was. Many of those people were involved with and interested in technology and innovation. Even those whom I thought would be in the know were unaware of Solar Impulse, probably because they were focused on other technologies and other innovations of which I knew little or nothing.
Most Enjoyable Events Wrangling
When I applied for the position of Events Wrangler at Automattic, I said the most enjoyable events I had ever helped wrangle were the Experimental Aircraft Association World Symposiums on Electric Aircraft. The Solar Impulse team was a big part of what made those symposiums so special. Bertrand Piccard, Michèle Piccard, André Borschberg, and Yasemin Borschberg came from Lausanne, Suisse, to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA, and shared the story of Solar Impulse at the 2010 symposium. Below is a photo showing Bertrand, Michèle, André, and (I think) Yasemin at a breakfast gathering on the day after the 2010 symposium.
I sent a “Félicitations” email to Bertrand today and told him to let me know if there is anything I can help him with. If he decides he wants to have this events wrangler / community builder / emerging technology enthusiast / chemical engineer work on the continuing Solar Impulse project or another innovation initiative he starts, I will be headed to Suisse…
To wrap up this post, I’ll close with two pictures. The first is the final landing of the world’s first solar-powered flight around the world — a Momentous Event! The second is a Solar Impulse 2 group shot at the Abu Dhabi airport. 🙂