Bertrand Piccard

My solar-powered adventure

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Well, I learned a lot of things about ballooning, especially at the end of these balloon flights around the world I did with Brian Jones. When I took this picture, the window was frozen because of the moisture of the night. And on the other side there was a rising sun. So, you see that on the other side of ice you have the unknown, you have the non-obvious, you have the non-seen, for the people who don't dare to go through the ice.


There are so many people who prefer to suffer in the ice they know instead of taking the risk of going through the ice to see what there is on the other side. And I think that's one of the main problems of our society. We learn, maybe not the famous TED audience, but so many other people learn, that the unknown, the doubts, the question marks are dangerous. And we have to resist to the changes. We have to keep everything under control. Well, the unknown is part of life.


And in that sense, ballooning is a beautiful metaphor. Because in the balloon, like in life, we go very well in unforeseen directions. We want to go in a direction, but the winds push us in another direction, like in life. And as long as we fight horizontally, against life, against the winds, against what's happening to us, life is a nightmare.


How do we steer a balloon? By understanding that the atmosphere is made out of several different layers of wind which all have different direction. So, then, we understand that if we want to change our trajectory, in life, or in the balloon, we have to change altitude. Changing altitude, in life, that means raising to another psychological, philosophical, spiritual level. But how do we do that?


In ballooning, or in life, how do we change altitude? How do we go from the metaphor to something more practical that we can really use every day? Well, in a balloon it's easy, we have ballast. And when we drop the ballast overboard we climb. Sand, water, all the equipment we don't need anymore. And I think in life it should be exactly like this.


You know, when people speak about pioneering spirit, very often they believe that pioneers are the ones who have new ideas. It's not true. The pioneers are not the ones who have new ideas, because new ideas are so easy to have. We just close our eyes for a minute we all come back with a lot of new ideas. No, the pioneer is the one who allows himself to throw overboard a lot of ballast. Habits, certainties, convictions, exclamation marks, paradigms, dogmas. And when we are able to do that, what happens? Life is not anymore just one line going in one direction in one dimension. No. Life is going to be made out of all the possible lines that go in all the possible directions in three dimensions.


And pioneering spirit will be each time we allow ourselves to explore this vertical axis. Of course not just like the atmosphere in the balloon, but in life itself. Explore this vertical axis, that means explore all the different ways to do, all the different ways to behave, all the different ways to think, before we find the one that goes in the direction we wish. This is very practical. This can be in politics. This can be in spirituality. This can be in environment, in finance, in education of children.


I deeply believe that life is a much greater adventure if we manage to do politics without the trench between the left and the right wing. Because we will throw away these political dogmas. I deeply believe that we can make much more protection of the environment if we get rid — if we throw overboard this fundamentalism that some of the greens have showed in the past. And that we can aim for much higher spirituality if we get rid of the religious dogmas. Throwing overboard, as ballast, to change our direction.


Well, these basically are things I believed in such a long time. But actually I had to go around the world in a balloon to be invited to talk about it. (Laughter) (Applause) It's clear that it's not easy to know which ballast to drop and which altitude to take. Sometime we need friends, family members or a psychiatrist. Well, in balloons we need weather men, the one who calculate the direction of each layer of wind, at which altitude, in order to help the balloonist. But sometimes it's very paradoxical.


When Brian Jones and I were flying around the world, the weather man asked us, one day, to fly quite low, and very slow. And when we calculated we thought we're never going to make it around the world at that speed. So, we disobeyed. We flew much higher, and double the speed.


And I was so proud to have found that jetstream that I called the weather man, and I told him, "Hey, guy, don't you think we're good pilots up there? We fly twice the speed you predicted." And he told me, "Don't do that. Go down immediately in order to slow down." And I started to argue. I said, "I'm not going to do that. We don't have enough gas to fly so slow." And he told me, "Yes, but with the low pressure you have on your left if you fly too fast, in a couple of hours you will turn left and end up at the North Pole. (Laughter) And then he asked me — and this is something I will never forget in my life — he just asked me, "You're the good pilot up there. What do you really want? You want to go very fast in the wrong direction, or slowly in the good direction? (Laughter) (Applause)


And this is why you need weathermen. This is why you need people with long-term vision. And this is precisely what fails in the political visions we have now, in the political governments. We are burning, as you heard, so much energy, not understanding that such an unsustainable way of life cannot last for long. So, we went down actually. We slowed down. And we went through moments of fears because we had no idea how the little amount of gas we had in the balloon could allow us to travel 45,000 kilometers. But we were expected to have doubts; we're expected to have fears. And actually this is where the adventure really started.


When we were flying over the Sahara and India it was nice holidays. We could land anytime and fly back home with an airplane. In the middle of the Pacific, when you don't have the good winds, you cannot land, you cannot go back. That's a crisis. That's the moment when you have to wake up from the automatic way of thinking. That's the moment when you have to motivate your inner potential, your creativity. That's when you throw out all the ballast, all the certainties, in order to adapt to the new situation.


And actually, we changed completely our flight plan. We changed completely our strategy. And after 20 days we landed successfully in Egypt. But if I show you this picture it's not to tell you how happy we were. It's to show you how much gas was left in the last bottles. We took off with 3.7 tons of liquid propane. We landed with 40 kilos.


When I saw that, I made a promise to myself. I made a promise that the next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel, independent from fossil energies, in order to be safe, not to be threatened by the fuel gauge. I had no idea how it was possible. I just thought it's a dream and I want to do it.


And when the capsule of my balloon was introduced officially in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, together with the airplane of Charles Lindbergh, with Apollo 11, with the Wright Brothers' Flyer, with Chuck Yeager's 61, I had really a thought then. I thought, well, the 20th century, that was brilliant. It allowed to do all those things there. But it will not be possible in the future any more. It takes too much energy. It will cost too much. It will be prohibited because we'll have to save our natural resources in a few decades from now.


So how can we perpetuate this pioneering spirit with something that will be independent from fossil energy? And this is when the project Solar Impulse really started to turn in my head. And I think it's a nice metaphor also for the 21st century. Pioneering spirit should continue, but on another level. Not to conquer the planet or space, not anymore, it has been done, but rather to improve the quality of life. How can we go through the ice of certainty in order to make the most incredible a possible thing? What is today completely impossible — get rid of our dependency on fossil energy.


If you tell to people, we want to be independent from fossil energy in our world, people will laugh at you, except here, where crazy people are invited to speak. (Laughter) So, the idea is that if we fly around the world in a solar powered airplane, using absolutely no fuel, nobody ever could say in the future that it's impossible to do it for cars, for heating systems, for computers, and so on and so on.


Well, solar power airplanes are not new. They have flown in the past, but without saving capabilities, without batteries. Which means that they have more proven the limits of renewable energies than the potential of it. If we want to show the potential, we have to fly day and night. That means to load the batteries during the flight, in order to spend the night on the batteries, and fly the next day again. It has been made, already, on remote controlled little airplane models, without pilots.


But it stays an anecdote because the public couldn't identify to it. I think you need a pilot in the plane that can talk to the universities, that can talk to students, talk to politicians during the flight, and really make it a human adventure. For that, unfortunately, four meters wingspan is not enough. You need 64 meter wingspan. 64 meter wingspan to carry one pilot, the batteries, flies slowly enough with the aerodynamic efficiency. Why that? Because fuel is not easy to replace. That's for sure. And with 200 square meters of solar power on our plane, we can produce the same energy than 200 little lightbulbs. That means a Christmas tree, a big Christmas tree.


So the question is, how can you carry a pilot around the world with an airplane that uses the same amount of energy as a big Christmas tree? People will tell you it's impossible, and that's exactly why we try to do it. We launched the project with my colleague Andre Borschberg six years ago. We have now 70 people in the team working on it. We have gone through the stages of simulation, design, computing, preparing the construction of the first prototype. That has been achieved after two years of work. Cockpit, propeller, engine. Just the fuselage here, it's so light. It's not designed by an artist, but it could be. 50 kilos for the entire fuselage. Couple of kilos more for the wing spars.


This is the complete structure of the airplane. And one month ago we have unveiled it. You cannot imagine how it is for a team who has been working six years on it to show that it's not only a dream and a vision, it's a real airplane. A real airplane that we could finally present.


And what's the goal now? The goal is to take off, end of this year for the first test, but mainly next year, spring or summer, take off, on our own power, without additional help, without being towed, climb to 9,000 meters altitude. The same time we load the batteries, we run the engines, and when we get at the maximum height, we arrive at the beginning of the night. And there, there will be just one goal, just one: reach the next sunrise before the batteries are empty. (Laughter)


And this is exactly the symbol of our world. If our airplane is too heavy, if the pilot wastes energy, we'll never make it through the night. And in our world, if we keep on spoiling, wasting our energy resources, if we keep on building things that consume so much energy that most of the companies now go bankrupt, it's clear that we'll never give the planet to the next generation without a major problem.


So, you see that this airplane is more a symbol. I don't think it will transport 200 people in the next years. But when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the payload was also just sufficient for one person and some fuel. And 20 years later there were 200 people in every airplane crossing the Atlantic.


So, we have to start, and show the example. A little bit like on this picture here. This is a painting from Magritte, in the museum in Holland that I love so much. It's a pipe, and it's written, "This is not a pipe." This is not an airplane. This is a symbol of what we can achieve when we believe in the impossible, when we have a team, when we have pioneering spirit, and especially when we understand that all the certainties we have should be thrown overboard.


What pleases me very much is that in the beginning I thought that we would have to fly around the world with no fuel in order to have our message been understood. And more and more, we're invited around the world with Andre to talk about that project, to talk about the symbol of it, invited by politicians, invited in energy forums, in order to show that it's not anymore completely stupid to think about getting rid of the dependency on fossil energies.


So, through speeches like this one today, through interviews, through meetings, our goal is to get as many people possible on the team. The success will not come if we "just," quote, unquote, fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane. No, the success will come if enough people are motivated to do exactly the same in their daily life, save energy, go to renewables. And this is possible. You know, with the technologies we have today, we can save between 30 and 50 percent of the energy of a country in Europe, and we can solve half of the rest with renewables. It leaves 25 or 30 percent for oil, gas, coal, nuclear, or whatever. This is acceptable.


This is why all the people who believe in this type of spirit are welcome to be on that team. You can just go on, subscribe to just be informed of what we're doing. But much more, to get advices, to give your comments, to spread the word that if it's possible in the air, of course it's possible in the ground.


And each time we have some ice in the future, we have to know that life will be great, and the success will be brilliant if we dare to overcome our fear of the ice, to go through the obstacle, to go through the problem, in order to see what there is on the other side. So, you see, this is what we're doing on our side. Everyone has his goal, has his dreams, has his visions.


The question I leave you with now is which is the ballast you would like to throw overboard? Which will be the altitude at which you would like to fly in your life, to get to the success that you wish to have, to get to the point that really belongs to you, with the potential you have, and the one you can really fulfill? Because the most renewable energy we have is our own potential, and our own passion. So, let's go for it, and I wish you an excellent adventure in the wings of the future. Thank you. (Applause)

For the dawn of a new decade, adventurer Bertrand Piccard offers us a challenge: Find motivation in what seems impossible. He shares his own plans to do what many say can't be done — to fly around the world, day and night, in a solar-powered aircraft.

About the speaker
Bertrand Piccard · Solar adventurer

Bertrand Piccard circumnavigated the Earth in a hot-air balloon. Now he wants to circle it in an airplane powered only by solar energy.

Bertrand Piccard circumnavigated the Earth in a hot-air balloon. Now he wants to circle it in an airplane powered only by solar energy.