As a form of transportation, the concept of electric aircraft, whether powered by batteries, solar panels, or combinations thereof, has lagged far behind both electric vehicles and solar powered cars. This makes sense given the unique aspects required for flight. In fact, some energy experts believe that airplanes will be the last users of fossil fuel for energy to convert to electrical power, if at all. The biggest issue is the need for high heat rate fuels, i.e., fuel that has a high energy content per pound. Energy is required to power the plane and enable flight, and every pound of fuel means a pound less for plane structure, passengers, or cargo. Batteries are heavy, and solar cells generate relatively small amounts of electricity per unit. Boeing stated the problem very clearly and concisely in its patent application for a solar powered aircraft. "If a Boeing 747 were equipped with perfectly efficient solar cells on its entire upper wing surface, it would receive at most approximately 600 kilowatts, or about 800 horsepower from the solar cells. This compares with approximately 100,000 horsepower required for the 747 to maintain cruising speed and altitude. Thus, solar power can provide only 0.8% of the needed power to a conventional 747, even if the solar cells are 100% efficient and the sun is directly above the airplane."
The conclusion from Boeing is that large passenger airplanes are not the right application for a solar powered planes. With that as a backdrop, a number of electric (i.e., battery powered), solar powered, and hybrid battery-solar aircraft have been in the headlines recently. Clever engineers are coupling the improved efficiency and reduced cost of solar cells and batteries with new technology to make electric powered aircraft something that may be commercialized sooner than anyone expected.
The following topics address the recent advances in solar powered aircraft:
In addition, Kitty Hawk, the "flying car" company that's financially backed by Google founder Larry Page, is developing its Kitty Hawk Flyer as an "all-electric aircraft" that is designed to operate over water and doesn't require a pilot's license to fly. The first video, that is part commercial and part test footage, of the prototype Flyer is now available at This is the first footage of Larry Page's flying car
. The company claims that a consumer version will be available by the end of 2017.