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  • Students in Spain Build Solar Plane
Jun 2011
CATALONIA, Spain, June 16, 2011 — A prototype for a solar energy plane called the “Solar Endeavour” is being developed by students at the Terrassa School of Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering (ETSEIAT) at the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC); their hope is to achieve the longest possible cruise flight.

The project, which includes seven students on the Trencalòs Team of ETSEIAT-UPC, is sponsored and tutored by the company GTD, using technology created by the seven students.

In February 2010, the students bought a scale commercial plane and started making the technical modifications necessary to transform it into a solar plane propelled exclusively by the sun's energy. The modifications involved are complex and must take into account the interaction between aerodynamics, electronic systems and the electricity generated by the solar photovoltaic system.

The two main technical challenges facing the team are the incorporation of solar cells on the wings and the design of the energy management system (EMS), which must ensure the autonomy of the aircraft. The optimal solar cells that need to be used are very fragile, and they have to be lightweight, flexible and conform perfectly to the curvature of the wings.

The technology required to incorporate solar cells on a plane’s wings already exists and has been implemented in other projects carried out around the world, including the Solar Impulse, a solar plane constructed by Swiss aviator Bertrand Piccard, whose ultimate goal is to achieve a round-the-world flight, and the Zephyr-6, a British prototype that holds the world endurance record for a flight by an unmanned aircraft. It has also been applied in the solar plane being developed by the Technological Institute for Renewable Energies (ITER) in Tenerife. The researchers involved in these projects have not made their technology public, so the students at ETSEIAT-UPC must conduct research and create their own technology to achieve the same objective.

The EMS must also be based on technology developed by the students. The EMS is the heart of the plane. Its function is to distribute energy stored in lithium batteries, and it comprises electronic components that must interact precisely to ensure that the plane's motor works properly in any atmospheric condition, even when the sun is not shining.

The Solar Endeavour will also be equipped with a complex telemetry and remote control system so the plane can be reliably kept on course.

The members of the Trencalòs Team expect the Solar Endeavour to be ready to make its first flight in August of this year. The aircraft has already made its first experimental flights without a motor to validate its flight mechanics, landing gear, servo control mechanisms and the aerodynamic modifications required to transform a glider into a solar plane.

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