A funny thing happened on the way to the moon
Why is ABB supporting Solar Impulse? (hint: it's more about the journey than the destination)
No one has actually asked me this question, but whenever I talk with people outside the company about ABB’s role in the Solar Impulse round-the-world flight, I can tell… they want to know.
It bears consideration: why would a global power and automation company like ABB give so much time, money and support (including a team of full-time, dedicated engineers) to a project that on its face has no practical application?
It’s true, solar-powered aviation is not likely to displace the jet-powered variety in our lifetime, but then that’s not the point. What, then, is the point? What does Solar Impulse mean to ABB and why are we supporting it in such a big way? I wasn’t consulted when the alliance was conceived, but I think I have an idea.
Solar Impulse is less about what it is (manifestly, an aircraft powered by the sun) and much more about what it could be. It’s about what’s possible. Allow me to make a highly self-aggrandizing analogy to the US space program.
America’s excursions to space, and the Apollo missions in particular, were undertaken without any expectation of an immediate return on investment. Neil Armstrong and those who followed him to the moon didn’t come back with an inexhaustible source of energy, a solution for world peace or a cure for cancer. It’s also fair to say that our off-world forays had as much to do with earthly geopolitics as anything else.
However, the space program did produce a wide variety of technologies (over 1,800 according to NASA) that probably wouldn’t have been developed as early, if at all, were it not for the space race. There are the fun ones like freeze-dried food and the materials technology behind Speedo’s ultra-sleek swimsuits, but they are outnumbered by the likes of mobile dialysis machines (derived from water filtration systems), fire-resistant coatings (derived from the heat shields on Apollo capsules) and rapid prototyping (facilitated by NASA’s 3D Rapid ToolMaker application). There were also advances in fuel cells and solar PV, the latter of which would later make it possible for a solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.
All of these technologies were developed in the service of putting human beings on the moon and returning them safely to the Earth, to paraphrase President Kennedy–heady stuff, but not especially useful on its own. So, what might we glean from the seemingly “useless” journey of Solar Impulse?
That, of course, remains to be seen (hybrid drones, anyone?). The point is that we don’t always know what “useful” things might emerge from a given line of inquiry. That’s why they call it research and development.
It took us 100 years to design a workable high-voltage DC circuit breaker, in part because it relies on advanced power electronics that in turn were developed over many years and on the shoulders of still more technologies. Each has its own story, punctuated by mistakes, coincidences and the occasional stroke of genius.
The point is that there is never a straight line between the present and the future, especially when it comes to technology. It’s what happens on the way to what we thought was our destination that leads us to real insight. ABB is supporting Solar Impulse not because of what it represents as an end destination, but because of what it represents as the journey.