Despite the breakthroughs made by solar-powered airplanes, there are still challenges that need to be overcome before they can be operated for commercial use.
The first challenge is the ability to carry hundreds of people. Keeping the airplane’s weight to a minimum is the basic design philosophy of a solar-powered aircraft. Carrying more people means more weight, meaning that it is infeasible for solar-powered airplanes to take off with that much load, as the present solar-powered design and technology is not equipped for that.
The second issue with solar-powered planes is their appallingly slow speed. Whereas a commercial-grade aircraft can cruise as a speed of 1000 km/hour, solar aircraft struggle by at around 100 km/hour. This implies that an 8-hour flight from London to New York would take more than 3 days to complete in a solar-powered craft.
The third major challenge is that solar planes are extremely climatic. The best time for them to take off is understandably during the day – to efficiently use daylight hours and keep the battery full until dusk. Although weather is an important factor in the entire aviation industry, solar planes are extremely sensitive in this regard. Given their light weight and slow speed, it can be nearly impossible to control the aircraft in heavy winds or during particularly harsh weather.
The fourth challenge relates to the pilot. The skillset required for flying a solar aircraft is much more extensive than the talent required to fly a normal plane. The pilot would first need to take off extremely carefully. Then, once the plane reaches an altitude of 8k-10k meters, the pilot would need to tactfully dodge dense cloud cover so that sunlight was not blocked.
Established airline companies aren’t very interested in solar-powered planes. Aviation is a capital-intensive industry and ensuring passenger safety can never be compromised, even for sensible or environmentally friendly reasons. Most aviation companies find solar-powered planes to presently be a risky proposal. Using a radically different airplane design would cost them billions of dollars, and if it goes wrong, those companies would be ruthlessly put out of business. Thus, solar planes – for now! – still need a lot of improvement in terms of carrying capacity, speed and safety when navigating seasonal variations.