Not long ago, the idea of building a solar-powered air-blimp to deliver things to remote places would have seemed a bit nuts. And, probably, it still is a bit nuts. But solar-driven air travel actually has credibility these days. Solar Impulse, a well-funded project based in Switzerland, has already flown a plane day and night using just the sun. It’s scheduled to go West Coast to East Coast this summer, and, eventually, around the world.
What is more, Jay Godsall, the prime-mover behind the Solar Ship—his dream since he was 16 years old—is highly motivated, has lived and worked in Africa, and knows how much remote communities need vital supplies, including vaccines. A lot of places are still beyond the range of helicopters, or bush doctors, or basic infrastructure, he says. And, fuel is often unavailable, expensive, or poor quality—making conventional air travel onerous, dangerous, or both.
Godsall’s Toronto-based company has built three prototypes of the Solar Ship so far. Essentially, it is a bulky version of the Impulse: a lightweight fuselage with wheels, attached to a blimp filled with helium, covered with hundreds of solar tiles. The iteration they’re working on now will be 65 by 65 feet, and about 30 feet tall. Godsall says it’ll weigh about 1,200 pounds, and be able to carry about 1,100 pounds. That’s enough for a stretcher with a heavy man on it, or a lot of vaccines.
Godsall reckons the Solar Ship could double the number of places where flying doctors can get to. As an example, he mentions communities not far from Hell-Ville, a tourist destination on the tip of Madagascar. Because of poor roads, he says, it can take three days to reach people not more than 20 miles away, leaving communities cut-off and exposed. "I caught four different infectious diseases there myself," he says. "If you could give communities access to health care, it would make a huge difference to their lives, because a lot of them are reeling. It’s one of the poorest places in the world."
"You could take a helicopter. But the problem is maintenance and repair. During the rainy season, from January to March, the road does not reliably link and you cannot get fuel and parts easily. Even the ships don’t stop because there’s so little buying clout in the area. With a helicopter, you have 14,000 metal parts smashing against each other, and it’s held aloft only by money. Run out of fuel, and you’re stranded."
Solar Ship is currently raising money on Indiegogo (not very successfully, though Godsall says the pitch has led to offline donations). This summer, the plan is to do further testing in remote Northern Canada, delivering supplies to aboriginal communities. Then, all being well, the Solar Ship will move to Africa in 2014. Godsall says the most likely route will be from Cape Town, in South Africa, to Bujumbura, Burundi, a journey of more than 2,500 miles. That way, the service can take in many under-served places in Zambia, eastern Congo, and Tanzania.
He promises the eventual aircraft will be robust enough to get home in cloudy, rainy weather, and against strong headwinds. "If Solar Impulse can fly all night, we can go to a few local communities," he says. "We think this machine is going to be really valuable for lots of people."