This Toronto company's solar-powered plane doesn't even need a runway

Introducing “hybrid hybrids”

(Solar Ship; iStock)

(Solar Ship; iStock)

Canadians are pretty good at flying things into tough-to-reach places. We’ve produced iconic backcountry aircraft such as the Twin Otter, the Dash 8 and the Beaver, and if Jay Godsall’s plans play out, the Caracal, the Chui and the Nanuq will soon join that list. These three “buoyantly assisted aircraft” are designed to go where traditional transportation can’t (at least, not easily). And they do it using a small fraction of the fuel that a traditional jet would need.

Developed by Godsall’s Toronto-based company, Solar Ship Inc., these aircraft gain lift from a wing that pairs buoyant helium gas with aerofoil geometry. Powered by fuel that can be offset with energy drawn from photovoltaic solar panels, the unique aircraft have been dubbed “hybrid hybrids.” They can take off and land in a few hundred metres and come packaged with all necessary storage, energy and communications infrastructure. “You could be dropped off with it anywhere, and you’d have everything you need to get out again,” Godsall explains. No airports, access roads or power lines needed.

The problem of getting in and out of harsh, hard-to-reach places has been bugging Godsall for more than three decades, ever since he got in a teenage argument with some Burundians over whether Northern Canada or central Africa had worse transportation conditions. Remote transportation was the subject of his university thesis, and his interest in it stubbornly persisted as he built a successful career in biotech. So, in 2006, he recruited some crack scientists and engineers and launched Solar Ship.

Eight years later, he hopes to have his first round of aircraft and supporting infrastructure ready by September of this year.

Although Solar Ship hasn’t yet commercialized its vessels, at least one significant investor isn’t worried about finding buyers. Rick Whittaker, chief technology officer at Sustainable Technology Development Canada, which has provided more than $2 million in funding, says there is huge demand for cost-effective, environmentally friendly technology among companies that deal with natural-resources extraction, disaster recovery efforts and simple day-to-day transport of goods to the thousands of communities worldwide without reliable road access. “[Solar Ship] will change the way we think about the movement of goods and the lives of people—not just in Canada, but globally,” he says. Military missions offer another potential market, though the company doesn’t plan to actively target this sector,

Godsall believes his aircraft could revolutionize life in Africa the way the introduction of cellphones did: “If we can provide a platform that can free people, we won’t just be unlocking a lot of economic energy. We’ll be changing everything.”