We need your help!
As part of an effort to provide medical accessibility to remote areas, the Solar Ship Foundation is working with partners in Burundi to support the implementation of portable medical outposts.
Please provide your support by VOTING for our project and leaving a comment on Grand Challenges Canada. View the video and vote here!
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Solar Ship has launched a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo. We’re aiming to raise $1M to fund our mission to Africa to deliver critical supplies.
When you contribute, you can select some solarship merch or sponsor a patch on the aircraft. This patch will contain your logo which will be represented digitally on our website and reproduced on the solarship itself!
Please spread the word and help us bring this mission to life.
Laura, our new research coordinator, tells of her experiences here at Solar Ship and offers her perspective on the solarship’s humanitarian applications.
During my last semester at McGill I channeled my concern for poverty and the environment into academic inquiry via an independent study I conducted in partnership with McGill Geography’s Professor Navin Ramankutty. Together Navin and I shaped the question that would be the basis of my research: What are the challenges and synergies in addressing the twin grand challenges of fighting poverty and minimizing environmental degradation?
It’s invigorating, eight months later, to be involved at Solar Ship—an organization that strives to effect change in these areas on the ground. Today I write from Solar Ship’s Toronto-based downtown office where I’m delighted to contribute to the self-sustaining thread of thoughtful ingenuity that the Solar Ship team has cultivated since its inception.
Solar Ship is committed to the development of a hybrid solar-powered aircraft that will service remote areas of the world. The final product will include a wing-ship design that provides a large surface area for solar electric power—backed by lithium-ion battery systems—and that permits take-off and landing in spaces as small as a soccer field. Solarships will be invaluable tools in difficult-to-access regions of the world where infrastructure, such as roads and runways, are scarce, and fossil fuels are often unavailable or unaffordable.
Under the leadership of company founder, Jay Godsall, Solar Ship has designed, built and flown three prototypes and we continue to improve the design in preparation for further flights in 2012.
The solarship is first and foremost a technology but in application the aircraft will open up a vast scope of humanitarian possibilities, starting with medical relief. By way of example, solarships could have been enormously helpful to relief and rescue operations in Haiti when that country was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010. The city of Jacmel’s airstrip and fueling infrastructure were damaged and roadway access to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was shut down; it took eight days for supplies and aid to reach the city of Jacmel. The suitability of the solarship technology to Jacmel’s disaster scenario prompts me to wonder not if but how the technology will benefit our preparedness for climate change—a phenomenon that is real and consequential, and that serves as a poignant reminder that we cannot let fossil-fuel-powered technology reign over cleaner alternatives.
Moreover, as individuals and organizations around the world strive to achieve environmental and social sustainability, there will be no shortage of opportunity for Solar Ship technology to benefit regions that have globally significant biodiversity value and that also harbour some of the most impoverished communities worldwide. For example, in the East African Rift Valley, Lake Tanganyika’s ecological integrity is threatened by human population pressure yet the Lake’s bordering communities remain without adequate access to health care and economic opportunities. In this case, the solarship could serve as a dual-purpose delivery system for medical supplies and ecological monitoring tool to protect Lake Tanganyika from over-fishing and its bordering land area from deforestation. As Solar Ship technology advances and payload increases, the aircraft could become a substitute for more environmentally degrading modes of transportation that necessitate deforestation. I don’t mean to suggest that technology on its own will solve deeply entrenched social and environmental issues; rather, for integrated conservation-development programs to be successful, the Solar Ship technology will need to go hand in hand with a sincere understanding of local cultural and political contexts.
Solar Ship, itself, operates in this humanitarian spirit, pushing the envelope of alternative energy technology, and serving as a microcosmic example of the human-centered activities that traditional for-profit commerce would be right to embrace.
Written by Laura Bryson
Danielle Azimi, a grade 9 student at Toronto French School writes about the Solar Ship! Check out her blog below to learn about our work from a 12-year-old’s perspective.
Thank you, Danielle!
Written by Danielle Azimi
Upon hearing about the Solar Ship concept, many people assume that the aircraft is lighter-than-air. After all, why else would you build an inflatable aircraft? As counter-intuitive as it may seem, however, the Solar Ship is deliberately designed to be heavier-than-air. Under normal circumstances, it produces more than half of its lift through aerodynamics, not buoyancy, and can even fly without any lifting gas at all!
There are several major benefits to being heavier-than-air. While being lighter-than-air obviously makes it easier for an airship to take off, it also makes it easier for it take off unintentionally, usually due to a stiff breeze! Keeping a conventional airship on the ground requires mooring infrastructure, tall hangars, and ground crews, while loading and unloading cargo or passengers requires the use of ballast weight to prevent the ship from heading prematurely skywards. The absence of any one of these makes the practical operation of an airship difficult, and they don’t tend to be things you have handy in a remote location.
By relying on the aerodynamic lift of its wing shape instead of buoyancy, the Solar Ship is much smaller than a lighter-than-air craft capable of carrying the same payload. This not only makes it structurally more robust, but also more maneuverable and resistant to wind and weather conditions, all of which help in its mission of servicing remote areas. An added benefit of being more airplane than airship is that the Solar Ship can fly when inflated solely with air (if damage to the envelope results in helium loss, for instance). This is not only an invaluable safety feature, but also improves the aircraft’s flexibility and gives the operator more choices.
In many ways, the Solar Ship can be thought of as a buoyantly-assisted airplane, using its helium to increase the aircraft’s payload and reduce its stall speed. Even filled with air, the take-off speed of a Solar Ship is less than half that of a conventional bush plane, and adding helium into the mix further enhances the aircraft’s extremely short take-off and land (STOL) capabilities. This makes it practical to use on very small, rugged airstrips – even impromptu ones, such as the soccer fields that exist in virtually every village in Africa.
The immediate aftermath of any disaster – natural or man-made - is chaotic. Even tight preparations with the best rehearsed response plans may be waylaid by unexpected obstacles. Following an earthquake, storm, flood, or tsunami, first responders can rarely rely on electrical, communications, and transportation infrastructure to serve them, especially in the crucial first days where efficient search-and-rescue operations mean the difference between life and death. Response teams must work with discipline and flexibility, performing their vital duties while adapting to a situation that is constantly evolving, all the while communicating with the leadership team to building situational awareness and coordinate the overall effort.
Which roads and bridges are still accessible? Where are people trapped? Where are people going? What are our resources, what can we do with them, and where are they located? Disaster relief can be a logistical nightmare, and the challenges of fulfilling the basic human needs of a displaced population often persists for weeks or months after the initial disaster. Simply knowing what is needed, where, and when is a significant unknown that can cause bottlenecks in operations before the information on the ground can filter back up. And while mobilizing the financial and material resources from abroad can be the first logistical trial, successful distribution of goods from the (often completely oversaturated) airports and harbours is no less daunting. Getting the vast quantities of supplies into a central hub aboard 747s and Hercules cargo planes is one thing, but getting them where they are needed requires coordination of every available transportation option, from cars, trucks, helicopters and planes, to motorcycles, donkeys*, and trudging feet.
Adding to the juggling act is the need to constantly keep the cogs of this very process of logistics turning with a steady supply of fossil fuels. As it stands today, when the fuel run dry, transportation stops. Generators stop running, and with them the electrical supply needed for lights, radios, pumps, refrigerators, and computers. Deciding where fuel supplies are best allocated is no trivial matter; would it be better to send a convoy of trucks to the camp along the one functional highway, or to send a fuel-guzzling heavy lift helicopter to resupply a village that has been cut off by landslides? There are never easy answers to any of these questions when human lives hang in the balance, and the right choices inevitably involve hard compromises to make the best of limited means.
Disaster relief is a lifesaving endeavour in which we hope Solar Ships can play an important role in the future. As an aircraft, the Solar Ship can help provide a broad situational overview, improve communications, and operate point-to-point in the absence of ground infrastructure. Its ability to operate on unprepared terrain, take-off-and-land in a short distance and carry useful payloads provides response teams with a valuable, flexible tool to resupply remote areas. Furthermore, its ability to operate independently of fuel means that flying Solar Ships doesn’t tax precious fuel supplies, no longer relegating relief planners to an either/or choice for resupply missions. Furthermore, when not flying missions, a parked Solar Ship can use its solar array to power operations on the ground. We don’t yet know the full extent of our aircraft’s potential, but our hope is that saving lives, one way or another, will help to teach us.
*In the first 2 weeks of Pakistan’s floods this past August, donkeys were used to transport more than 20 tonnes of supplies along narrow, muddy tracks to victims in the Shahpur valley. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Good news! We have just completed manufacturing our third envelope. In the next few weeks, we will commence test flying on the new envelope in southern Ontario. We are excited about this new envelope because we were able to resolve some issues and make design improvements based on testing our previous envelopes, which we will discuss in further detail in a future blog.
The time is ripe to discuss some applications of Solar Ship. In my previous blog, I discussed that Solar Ship has enormous carrying capacity for its physical weight. In addition, it has significant amounts of power provided by its solar photovoltaics. By combining the two strengths we have an aircraft for many applications. I have listed some of the possible applications below.
Whether camping for survival or for pleasure, the SolarShip has a very short take off distance which means it can land in almost any field. Even on small ships, the solar array can provide ample power for electrical applications such as television, computers, cellular phones, satellite services, water purification, and refrigeration. A screen can be wrapped around the ship to provide a large, dry space for sleeping. Solar Ship allows the camping group to be self-sufficient for long periods of time – at least until the food runs out!
As in the camping application, Solar Ship provides the capacity to have an onsite mobile lab with computers, communications, and testing equipment. Larger Solar Ships can provide life support services for long periods in the field. Also, Solar Ship can be very quiet when it is flying on electric motors expanding the ways in which researchers can track animals. For data collection in the field, Solar Ship has long endurance at slow speeds; a plane or helicopter cannot stay in the air for long periods; a balloon cannot maneuver; an airship is comparable, but it too runs out of gas and it gets lighter as it burns fuel, creating buoyancy management problems. When studying species at risk in large spaces with difficult to navigate ecosystems (e.g. polar bears, rhinos, mountain gorillas, Madagascar fish eagles, whales, etc…) having unlimited range at slow speeds creates a new platform for researchers to learn more about these species.
Various medical supplies, such as vaccines, need to be kept cool – less than 4 degrees C – otherwise they spoil. Solar Ship has the onboard power to provide refrigeration to preserve this cargo and provide what is known as “cold chain” cargo. The other problem is getting medical supplies to areas that have very little fuel, and Solar Ship bypasses that constraint by using solar power to fly. One of our first missions will be to deliver a small medical package in Africa in 2011.
Cold Chain Cargo
There are also non-medical applications for cold chain; sometimes cargo, such as milk, has to be kept at a certain temperature. In order to ship cargo to remote areas with poor infrastructure, it has to be preserved, and Solar Ship has the capability to ensure the cargo does not spoil. Not only can Solar Ship deliver cargo, it can also retrieve cargo from remote areas. An example is delivering milk from the farmers to be resold in the cities. By providing a link to the markets from remote areas, Solar Ship can help provide economic opportunities in remote areas.
Some of the greatest limitations of providing medical services in disaster areas are the lack of shelter, electrical power, medical supplies, refrigeration, and communications to the outside world. Solar Ship provides the foundation for expanded medical services in remote areas. The sides of the ship can be screened off to provide an immediate triage area. We will be posting a more in-depth blog on this important application soon.
Remote Electrical and Communication Services
Much of the tropics, and in particular Africa, communicates using cellular phones – so how do these phones get recharged? Solar Ship in remote areas can provide low cost power to recharge electrical devices using energy generated from the sun. Solar ship can also be provisioned to connect a remote community to the internet – this can provide critical information to and from the community.
Cargo to Remote Areas
In northern Canada, many cargo services can only be offered to communities in the winter because there are no roads and therefore cargo can only be delivered on ice roads. Flooding in many warm weather remote areas has a similar effect, cutting off remote communities for weeks and sometimes months. Solar Ship can take over from the brave ice road truckers in the spring and continue to deliver cargo throughout the spring, summer, and fall. This would reduce the cost of shipping goods to the north and thus make it cheaper for customers to purchase products.
Heavy Lift Cargo
Again in Northern Canada, it can be difficult to ship cargo to the market from remote areas because there are no roads. Very large Solar Ships may be able to carry more than 100 tonnes. This capacity provides that vital link to deliver cargo to the market at good economies of scale. It also allows remote communities to export products to the rest of the world.
Both Australia and Canada have vast northern areas with extremely small populations. These huge areas require monitoring for defense purposes, requiring enormous resources in manpower, aircraft and fuel. Solar Ship has the capability to stay in the air indefinitely using both solar power and batteries. This allows a wide area to be monitored reliably with low carrying costs.
Linking Remote Communities
It’s very hard for communities that are set apart by great distances to personally interact at a low cost. Canada’s territories – Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon – have 110,000 people in a number of communities spread over an area of more than 4 million square kilometers. That’s more than half the area of the US if you exclude Alaska. Africa has an area of 30 million square km with many communities kept apart through geography and conflict. Solar Ship can provide a low cost mode of transportation to link these communities together to foster peace and relationships.
These are just some of the possible applications that Solar Ship can provide. By combining an efficient, stable, and flexible aircraft with solar modules to generate its own power, we create a low cost mode of transportation with numerous possibilities for the technology.
Regulars may notice that the Solar Ship Blog has migrated. We’ve moved sites to bring you more functionality, more contributors, more content, and improved interactivity – including the ability to comment on posts (and receive responses from the Solar Ship team). We also have more visual real estate, so you can look forward to higher resolution images for future posts.
Keep watching this space for the future; we should have a number of very exciting developments to share with you in the coming months!
Solar Ship 10 m prototype
I asked myself this question. Several years ago a young guy, Jay Godsall, starting thinking about a hybrid solar airship. Jay was developing a handheld medical diagnostic technology which is used to rapidly test for pathogens in people – but he had a problem. The device was part of a medical package that needed to be kept at a cool temperature, and he had no way of getting the device to remote areas. Remote areas have very poor road infrastructure so Jay couldn’t just drive there. Jay went to see Dr. Jim DeLaurier at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS). Dr. DeLaurier suggested a new model of airship and he carried out a series of wind tunnel tests to prove the model could carry medical cargo to remote areas.
One important aspect of a new ship is its performance. The performance numbers suggested that a 20 metre wide hybrid airship could carry up to 13,000 pounds. In contrast a de Haviland Beaver, which is a popular bush plane, can only carry up to 2,000 pounds. A US Army Chinook helicopter, which is a popular heavy-duty transport of troops and supplies in combat zones, carries up to 25,000 pounds.
de Haviland Beaver
What is so special about this design that it can carry so much compared to other types of aircraft? The design combines aerodynamic and aerostatic (buoyancy) lift to provide tremendous lift. As the size of the ship increases, aerostatic lift capacity increases in proportion to the cube of the linear surface. This means if you double the size of the ship, you increase the wing surface area by a factor of 4 and the gas’ lifting volume by a factor of 8.
The enormous flat wing span of this airship provides a huge surface for solar cells to be installed. This provides lots of free energy to power the electric motors and other applications such as providing energy for refrigeration. The plan for the 11m Solar Ship is to provide up to 4 KW of electricity. It is anticipated that the 20m will provide up to 13 KW. This may not sound like much, but because the Solar Ship is so efficient, it allows it to fly. In comparison, the typical household uses 1 KW. Solar technology is improving and over time the power available to install on the Solar Ships will increase. Remember as we double the size of the ship, the amount of solar power that can be installed quadruples.
The design allows Solar Ship to be scaled appropriately for the application. For instance, if a cargo company wanted to resupply a remote area and the road infrastructure is very poor, a larger Solar Ship with a lot of propulsion could be built for this role. Solar Ship can also be scaled to move cargo in areas where fuel is not available (or very expensive) by using its solar energy for propulsion. By using Solar Ship, the cost for building ground transportation infrastructure is deferred.
The maximum range is dependent on how much fuel is carried. Fuel adds weight which must be subtracted from the maximum takeoff weight. So more fuel, more range, but less actual cargo. In other words, less fuel, less range, but more cargo. Running on just solar power potentially has unlimited range but the range is limited to how many batteries can be installed on the ship. More batteries gives a longer range, but adds more weight.
Solar Ship blends the technologies of aerodynamic lift, aerostatic lift, and solar cells to create a cost efficient, long range, energy efficient cargo carrier for areas with minimal or unreliable infrastructure. This is why many of us are very excited about the possibilities for Solar Ship to provide transportation services in remote areas.
Solar Ship provides opportunities for a wide range of applications which we will discuss further in future blogs.
Saturday, February 5, 1983 at the Burundian Embassy in Ottawa: Ambassador Jerome Ntungumburanye is putting on one of his traditional Saturday lunches where academics, entrepreneurs and policy makers from Africa are invited to share ideas and discuss problems. The focus of this meeting is transport in landlocked countries. Ntungumburanye likes to include young people in the discussions.
Solar Ship founder Jay Godsall is invited because he has a small business servicing embassies, and he is friends with the ambassador’s kids. He is 16 and the ambassador encourages him to ask questions and participate.
There are economists, retired politicians, aid workers and ambassadors from other landlocked countries, and all are discussing the problem of being unable to access the global economy because they don’t have ports to the sea. The ability to get their commodities to global markets is critical for resource economies like Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, but the arteries to the global economy are clogged.
Jay asks about planes – too expensive. Jay asks about trains – controlled by the neighbours who access the sea. Jay asks about trucks – they work, but the roads are terrible and there are corrupt police/military/gangs that slow things down and create ‘toll roads’.
“What about airships?”
The kind of silence where some are curious and some don’t know what you are talking about.
“You know, like a blimp, like the Zeppelins – what about getting cargo going on one of those. You could start the African Great Lakes Airship Company.”
A man named Ladislas pipes in. He’s an economist. He asks how do they work. The 16 year old has no clue how airships really work, except lighter than air gas, hydrogen and helium. No one has the internet, let alone a smart phone to Wiki up the answers and images and advance the conversation. This is the Information Ice Age where there is a lot of it, but it does not flow into your hand on demand. It is frozen in books in libraries – Jay volunteers to do a high school project on the subject and learn more. Presumably, Ladislas suggests, they could be like ships and you could have your own port in a landlocked country. Ladislas is a provocative big thinker. A debate ensues.
Jay does a high school project and gets back to Ladislas and Ntungumburanye. Ladislas says this could change everything. Everything. Give places like Burundi equal access to the global economy, and Burundi could compete with China and India… The project, unfortunately, is a high school paper with little technical detail. But the prospect of opening up one of the most challenging places in the world starts to spread among a small circle of thinkers.
After high school, Ntungumburanye invites Jay to Burundi. Jay visits Burundi in 1986 and gets to travel the roads himself. He visits the port to talk with marine shippers on Lake Tanganyika; he meets with trucking companies and he does what people who are genetically entrepreneurial do, he becomes possessed with an idea. In this case, it is the idea of unshackling one of the poorest, most war-torn places on Earth.
Jay returns to Canada and does an economics thesis at McGill University onTransport Economics in Great Lakes Africa – The Case for Airship Transport. The thesis is rejected as being unrealistic. Jay then launches an airship company with the idea of building a prototype in 1990 and flying it to Burundi. This idea does what many entrepreneurial ideas do – it fails. The technology is not as advanced as he thought. He lacks the expertise and funding. But he gets to know who many of the players are in the airship industry. His favourite character is Dr. James DeLaurier at the University of Toronto, known as the world’s best aerodynamicist for airships. A cut-to-the-chase kind of character.
Jay recovers from his failed airship business and starts a ‘venture catalyst’ company, developing enterprise in Africa. On several occasions Jay nearly dies from infectious diseases and is saved by tropical medicine specialist Dr. Kevin Kain. Inspired by near-death experiences, Jay starts working on infectious disease ventures. The idea of creating a Mobile Lab to bring advanced medical technology to places like Burundi and Madagascar starts to take hold. Once the vision and parameters are defined, Jay gets in touch with Dr. DeLaurier in December 2004 and presents him with a challenge and a mission.
Dr. DeLaurier listens to Jay describe the challenges of creating a cold-chain medical service to remote areas in the tropics and suggests that a traditional airship is not the answer. He then shows Jay a new design, a hybrid aircraft. This aircraft needs no roads, no fuel, no outside help – pure self-reliance.
Dr. DeLaurier recruits a team of top notch aerospace engineers and starts to work on testing and refining this concept of pure self-reliance…