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TEDGlobal 2009

Bertrand Piccard: My solar-powered adventure

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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.

- 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. Full bio

Well, I learned a lot of things about ballooning,
00:15
especially at the end of these balloon flights
00:19
around the world I did with Brian Jones.
00:23
When I took this picture,
00:25
the window was frozen because of the moisture of the night.
00:27
And on the other side there was a rising sun.
00:31
So, you see that on the other side of ice
00:33
you have the unknown,
00:37
you have the non-obvious,
00:39
you have the non-seen,
00:42
for the people who don't dare
00:44
to go through the ice.
00:46
There are so many people
00:48
who prefer to suffer in the ice they know
00:50
instead of taking the risk of going through the ice
00:53
to see what there is on the other side.
00:56
And I think that's one of the main problems of our society.
00:59
We learn, maybe not the famous TED audience,
01:03
but so many other people learn,
01:06
that the unknown, the doubts,
01:09
the question marks are dangerous.
01:11
And we have to resist to the changes.
01:13
We have to keep everything under control.
01:16
Well, the unknown is part of life.
01:20
And in that sense, ballooning is a beautiful metaphor.
01:23
Because in the balloon, like in life,
01:27
we go very well in unforeseen directions.
01:30
We want to go in a direction,
01:33
but the winds push us in another direction, like in life.
01:35
And as long as we fight horizontally,
01:38
against life, against the winds,
01:41
against what's happening to us,
01:44
life is a nightmare.
01:46
How do we steer a balloon?
01:49
By understanding that the atmosphere
01:51
is made out of several different layers of wind
01:53
which all have different direction.
01:56
So, then, we understand that if we want to change our trajectory,
01:59
in life, or in the balloon,
02:02
we have to change altitude.
02:05
Changing altitude, in life,
02:07
that means raising to another psychological, philosophical,
02:09
spiritual level.
02:13
But how do we do that?
02:15
In ballooning, or in life,
02:17
how do we change altitude?
02:19
How do we go from the metaphor
02:21
to something more practical that we can really
02:23
use every day?
02:25
Well, in a balloon it's easy, we have ballast.
02:27
And when we drop the ballast overboard we climb.
02:29
Sand, water, all the equipment we don't need anymore.
02:34
And I think in life it should be exactly like this.
02:38
You know, when people speak about pioneering spirit,
02:41
very often they believe that pioneers
02:44
are the ones who have new ideas.
02:46
It's not true.
02:48
The pioneers are not the ones who have new ideas,
02:50
because new ideas are so easy to have.
02:52
We just close our eyes for a minute we all come back
02:54
with a lot of new ideas.
02:56
No, the pioneer is the one who
02:58
allows himself to throw overboard a lot of ballast.
03:00
Habits, certainties,
03:03
convictions, exclamation marks,
03:06
paradigms, dogmas.
03:11
And when we are able to do that,
03:13
what happens?
03:15
Life is not anymore
03:17
just one line going in one direction
03:19
in one dimension. No.
03:23
Life is going to be made out of all the possible lines
03:25
that go in all the possible directions
03:29
in three dimensions.
03:31
And pioneering spirit will be each time we allow ourselves
03:35
to explore this vertical axis.
03:37
Of course not just like the atmosphere in the balloon,
03:40
but in life itself.
03:42
Explore this vertical axis, that means
03:44
explore all the different ways to do,
03:47
all the different ways to behave, all the different ways to think,
03:49
before we find the one that goes in the direction we wish.
03:53
This is very practical.
03:58
This can be in politics.
04:00
This can be in spirituality.
04:02
This can be in environment,
04:04
in finance, in education of children.
04:06
I deeply believe
04:09
that life is a much greater adventure
04:11
if we manage to do politics
04:14
without the trench between the left and the right wing.
04:16
Because we will throw away these political dogmas.
04:20
I deeply believe that we can make much more protection of the environment
04:24
if we get rid -- if we throw overboard
04:28
this fundamentalism that some of the greens have showed in the past.
04:31
And that we can aim for much higher spirituality
04:35
if we get rid of the religious dogmas.
04:38
Throwing overboard, as ballast, to change our direction.
04:40
Well, these basically are things I believed in such a long time.
04:44
But actually I had to go around the world in a balloon
04:47
to be invited to talk about it.
04:49
(Laughter)
04:51
(Applause)
04:54
It's clear that it's not easy to know which ballast to drop
05:00
and which altitude to take. Sometime we need
05:04
friends, family members or a psychiatrist.
05:06
Well, in balloons we need weather men,
05:09
the one who calculate the direction of each layer of wind,
05:12
at which altitude, in order to help the balloonist.
05:16
But sometimes it's very paradoxical.
05:19
When Brian Jones and I were flying around the world,
05:22
the weather man asked us, one day, to fly
05:25
quite low, and very slow.
05:27
And when we calculated we thought we're never going to make it
05:30
around the world at that speed.
05:32
So, we disobeyed. We flew much higher, and double the speed.
05:35
And I was so proud to have found that jetstream
05:39
that I called the weather man,
05:42
and I told him, "Hey, guy, don't you think we're good pilots up there?
05:44
We fly twice the speed you predicted."
05:47
And he told me, "Don't do that. Go down immediately
05:50
in order to slow down."
05:52
And I started to argue. I said, "I'm not going to do that.
05:54
We don't have enough gas to fly so slow."
05:56
And he told me, "Yes, but with the low pressure you have on your left
05:59
if you fly too fast, in a couple of hours
06:02
you will turn left and end up at the North Pole.
06:05
(Laughter)
06:07
And then he asked me --
06:09
and this is something I will never forget in my life --
06:11
he just asked me, "You're the good pilot up there.
06:14
What do you really want? You want to go very fast
06:17
in the wrong direction, or slowly in the good direction?
06:19
(Laughter)
06:22
(Applause)
06:25
And this is why you need weathermen.
06:27
This is why you need people with long-term vision.
06:29
And this is precisely what fails
06:32
in the political visions we have now,
06:35
in the political governments.
06:38
We are burning, as you heard,
06:40
so much energy,
06:42
not understanding that such an unsustainable
06:44
way of life cannot last for long.
06:48
So, we went down actually.
06:51
We slowed down. And we went through moments of fears
06:54
because we had no idea how the little amount of gas
06:58
we had in the balloon
07:00
could allow us to travel 45,000 kilometers.
07:02
But we were expected to have doubts; we're expected to have fears.
07:06
And actually this is where the adventure really started.
07:09
When we were flying over the Sahara and India
07:12
it was nice holidays.
07:14
We could land anytime and fly back home with an airplane.
07:16
In the middle of the Pacific,
07:19
when you don't have the good winds, you cannot land,
07:21
you cannot go back.
07:23
That's a crisis.
07:25
That's the moment when you have to wake up
07:27
from the automatic way of thinking.
07:29
That's the moment when you have to motivate
07:31
your inner potential,
07:33
your creativity.
07:35
That's when you throw out all the ballast,
07:37
all the certainties,
07:39
in order to adapt to the new situation.
07:41
And actually, we changed completely our flight plan.
07:43
We changed completely our strategy.
07:46
And after 20 days we landed successfully in Egypt.
07:48
But if I show you this picture
07:51
it's not to tell you how happy we were.
07:53
It's to show you how much gas was left
07:56
in the last bottles.
07:58
We took off with 3.7 tons of liquid propane.
08:00
We landed with 40 kilos.
08:05
When I saw that, I made a promise to myself.
08:09
I made a promise that the next time I would fly around the world,
08:12
it would be with no fuel,
08:15
independent from fossil energies,
08:18
in order to be safe,
08:21
not to be threatened by the fuel gauge.
08:24
I had no idea how it was possible.
08:26
I just thought it's a dream and I want to do it.
08:29
And when the capsule of my balloon was introduced
08:33
officially in the Air and Space Museum in Washington,
08:36
together with the airplane of Charles Lindbergh,
08:38
with Apollo 11, with the Wright Brothers' Flyer,
08:40
with Chuck Yeager's 61,
08:42
I had really a thought then.
08:45
I thought, well, the 20th century, that was brilliant.
08:47
It allowed to do all those things there.
08:49
But it will not be possible in the future any more.
08:52
It takes too much energy. It will cost too much.
08:55
It will be prohibited
08:58
because we'll have to save our natural resources
09:00
in a few decades from now.
09:02
So how can we perpetuate
09:04
this pioneering spirit
09:06
with something that will be independent from fossil energy?
09:09
And this is when the project Solar Impulse
09:13
really started to
09:15
turn in my head.
09:18
And I think it's a nice metaphor also
09:20
for the 21st century.
09:22
Pioneering spirit should continue, but on another level.
09:24
Not to conquer the planet or space,
09:28
not anymore, it has been done,
09:31
but rather to improve the quality of life.
09:33
How can we go through the ice of certainty
09:36
in order to make the most incredible a possible thing?
09:39
What is today completely impossible --
09:43
get rid of our dependency on fossil energy.
09:47
If you tell to people, we want to be independent
09:50
from fossil energy in our world,
09:52
people will laugh at you, except here,
09:54
where crazy people are invited to speak.
09:56
(Laughter)
09:59
So, the idea is that if we fly around the world
10:01
in a solar powered airplane,
10:05
using absolutely no fuel,
10:07
nobody ever could say in the future
10:09
that it's impossible to do it
10:12
for cars, for heating systems,
10:14
for computers, and so on and so on.
10:16
Well, solar power airplanes are not new.
10:19
They have flown in the past, but without
10:22
saving capabilities, without batteries.
10:24
Which means that they have more proven
10:27
the limits of renewable energies
10:29
than the potential of it.
10:31
If we want to show the potential,
10:33
we have to fly day and night.
10:35
That means to load the batteries during the flight,
10:38
in order to spend the night on the batteries,
10:41
and fly the next day again.
10:44
It has been made, already, on remote controlled
10:46
little airplane models, without pilots.
10:50
But it stays an anecdote
10:53
because the public couldn't identify to it.
10:55
I think you need a pilot in the plane
10:58
that can talk to the universities,
11:00
that can talk to students,
11:02
talk to politicians during the flight,
11:04
and really make it a human adventure.
11:06
For that, unfortunately,
11:08
four meters wingspan is not enough.
11:10
You need 64 meter wingspan.
11:13
64 meter wingspan to carry one pilot, the batteries,
11:16
flies slowly enough with the aerodynamic efficiency.
11:20
Why that? Because fuel is not easy to replace.
11:24
That's for sure.
11:28
And with 200 square meters of solar power on our plane,
11:30
we can produce the same energy
11:35
than 200 little lightbulbs.
11:38
That means a Christmas tree, a big Christmas tree.
11:40
So the question is, how can you carry a pilot around the world
11:44
with an airplane that uses
11:48
the same amount of energy as a big Christmas tree?
11:50
People will tell you it's impossible,
11:53
and that's exactly why we try to do it.
11:55
We launched the project with my colleague Andre Borschberg
11:58
six years ago.
12:01
We have now 70 people in the team working on it.
12:03
We have gone through the stages of simulation, design,
12:06
computing, preparing the construction
12:10
of the first prototype.
12:13
That has been achieved after two years of work.
12:15
Cockpit, propeller, engine.
12:18
Just the fuselage here, it's so light.
12:20
It's not designed by an artist, but it could be.
12:22
50 kilos for the entire fuselage.
12:25
Couple of kilos more for the wing spars.
12:27
This is the complete structure of the airplane.
12:31
And one month ago we have unveiled it.
12:34
You cannot imagine how it is for a team
12:37
who has been working six years on it
12:39
to show that it's not only a dream and a vision,
12:41
it's a real airplane.
12:44
A real airplane that we could finally present.
12:46
And what's the goal now?
12:49
The goal is to take off,
12:51
end of this year for the first test,
12:55
but mainly next year, spring or summer,
12:57
take off, on our own power,
13:01
without additional help, without being towed,
13:03
climb to 9,000 meters altitude.
13:06
The same time we load the batteries,
13:09
we run the engines, and when we get at the maximum height,
13:11
we arrive at the beginning of the night.
13:16
And there, there will be just one goal, just one:
13:18
reach the next sunrise before the batteries are empty.
13:23
(Laughter)
13:26
And this is exactly the symbol of our world.
13:29
If our airplane is too heavy,
13:32
if the pilot wastes energy,
13:34
we'll never make it through the night.
13:36
And in our world, if we keep on spoiling,
13:38
wasting our energy resources,
13:41
if we keep on building things that consume so much energy
13:43
that most of the companies now go bankrupt,
13:46
it's clear that we'll never give the planet to the next generation
13:51
without a major problem.
13:53
So, you see that this airplane is more a symbol.
13:55
I don't think it will transport 200 people
13:58
in the next years.
14:00
But when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic,
14:02
the payload was also just sufficient
14:04
for one person and some fuel.
14:06
And 20 years later there were 200 people
14:10
in every airplane crossing the Atlantic.
14:12
So, we have to start,
14:14
and show the example.
14:16
A little bit like on this picture here.
14:18
This is a painting from Magritte,
14:20
in the museum in Holland that I love so much.
14:22
It's a pipe, and it's written, "This is not a pipe."
14:25
This is not an airplane.
14:28
This is a symbol of what we can achieve
14:31
when we believe in the impossible,
14:34
when we have a team,
14:36
when we have pioneering spirit,
14:38
and especially when we understand
14:41
that all the certainties we have
14:43
should be thrown overboard.
14:45
What pleases me very much
14:48
is that in the beginning I thought that we would have to fly
14:50
around the world with no fuel
14:52
in order to have our message been understood.
14:55
And more and more, we're invited around the world with Andre
14:58
to talk about that project, to talk about the symbol of it,
15:01
invited by politicians, invited in energy forums,
15:04
in order to show that it's not anymore
15:07
completely stupid
15:10
to think about getting rid of the dependency
15:12
on fossil energies.
15:14
So, through speeches like this one today,
15:16
through interviews, through meetings,
15:19
our goal is to get as many people possible on the team.
15:22
The success will not come
15:27
if we "just," quote, unquote,
15:29
fly around the world in a solar-powered airplane.
15:31
No, the success will come
15:33
if enough people are motivated
15:36
to do exactly the same in their daily life,
15:38
save energy, go to renewables.
15:41
And this is possible. You know, with the technologies we have today,
15:44
we can save between 30 and 50 percent
15:47
of the energy of a country in Europe,
15:50
and we can solve half of the rest with renewables.
15:54
It leaves 25 or 30 percent for
15:57
oil, gas, coal, nuclear, or whatever.
16:00
This is acceptable.
16:04
This is why all the people who believe
16:06
in this type of spirit
16:10
are welcome to be on that team.
16:12
You can just go on SolarImpulse.com, subscribe
16:14
to just be informed of what we're doing.
16:17
But much more, to get advices,
16:19
to give your comments, to spread the word
16:21
that if it's possible in the air,
16:23
of course it's possible in the ground.
16:26
And each time we have some ice in the future,
16:29
we have to know that life will be great,
16:33
and the success will be brilliant
16:36
if we dare to overcome our fear of the ice,
16:39
to go through the obstacle,
16:42
to go through the problem, in order to see what there is on the other side.
16:44
So, you see, this is what we're doing on our side.
16:48
Everyone has his goal, has his dreams,
16:52
has his visions.
16:55
The question I leave you with now
16:58
is which is the ballast
17:00
you would like to throw overboard?
17:02
Which will be the altitude at which
17:06
you would like to fly in your life,
17:08
to get to the success that you wish to have,
17:11
to get to the point that really belongs to you,
17:14
with the potential you have,
17:18
and the one you can really fulfill?
17:20
Because the most renewable energy we have
17:23
is our own potential, and our own passion.
17:26
So, let's go for it, and I wish you an excellent adventure
17:29
in the wings of the future. Thank you.
17:31
(Applause)
17:33

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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.

Why you should listen

Bertrand Piccard was born in a family of firsts. His father, Jacques, together with Dan Walsh of the US, was the first man to reach the deepest point of the world's oceans, the Mariana Trench, in 1960. Almost 30 years earlier, his grandfather, Auguste, first ballooned into the stratosphere. While they went up and down, Bertrand went horizontal and in 1999, together with Brian Jones of Britain, completed the first-ever nonstop balloon circumnavigation of the globe, flying more than 45,000 km in 20 days.

Now, in a hangar near Zurich, a team of scientists and engineers around Piccard and co-pilot André Borschberg is building Solar Impulse, an unconventional aircraft designed to circumnavigate the Earth powered by solar energy, flying day and night (yes, when the Sun is "off"). The prototype has the weight of a car but the wingspan of an Airbus. Solar Impulse has successfully flown from Spain to Morocco and across the United States. The next trip: circumnavigation.

Piccard is also the founder of Winds of Hope, an organization to combat neglected diseases in children, and a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Population Fund.

More profile about the speaker
Bertrand Piccard | Speaker | TED.com