Philippe Lauper: Chase the Sun

He and his team are building a plane that will circle the globe on sunlight alone


This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.

As a boy, Philippe Lauper loved food so much he wanted to become a chef. But around age 15, in a moment of youthful clarity, he envisioned the reality of such a life: day after day of cooking, mopping floors, and tallying receipts. The backup plan was engineering—he enjoyed reading about famous inventors—and today he finds himself managing one of the most audacious technology projects ever conceived: building a plane that can fly around the globe on sunlight alone.

Lauper was born in 1971 in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, not far from Neuchâtel. His love of food probably comes from his parents, who bought and sold organic food, an odd occupation at the time.

In 1989 he enrolled in a local university to study microtechnical engineering, later switching to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (known as EPFL, the acronym for its French name). Many of his classmates were focusing on integrated microelectronics, but Lauper concentrated on production engineering because it seemed more practical, and he preferred working on systems to designing individual components.

In 1995, fresh out of college, he sought a job where he’d have to speak a lot of English. He soon got one with the Swiss branch of Silicon Graphics, where he was charged with ensuring the quality of the components used in the Sunnyvale, Calif., company’s storage devices and sorting out any problems with the components’ suppliers. The job demanded a lot of people skills, and he found that he liked the interactions. He also got to travel and learn about American culture.

But Lauper realized he wanted more than exposure to a different culture within Switzerland: He wanted to actually live abroad. “I picked a place where I could ally good climate and windsurfing—so a windy place—and still have a job where I would use my brain and not just sell cocktails on the beach.” Perth, Australia, filled the bill, and Lauper’s EPFL contacts helped him get a job in biomedical optics at the University of Western Australia. There his task was to help convert a refrigerator-size system for diagnosing skin cancer into a portable unit. He liked the mix of hands-on fabrication and project management. And the surfing? “Pure fun!” he almost shouts.

After a year and a half, though, he got homesick for Switzerland, and he moved back to take a project-management and systems-engineering gig with the consulting company Altran.

Lauper first heard about the solar-plane project in 2004, when the driving forces behind it, pilot Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg, announced they would be presenting their idea at the International Exhibition of Inventions, an annual event that attracts wild-eyed inventors from around the world. Lauper took the train to Geneva to check out the project. “You could see hundreds of inventions” at the show, he says. “But I went for this one.”

At the time, the solar-powered plane, which is called Solar Impulse, existed only on paper. But the project was gaining momentum, and Lauper’s employer signed on as a partner. As part of the deal, Altran agreed to assign a project manager to Solar Impulse. Offered the job, Lauper leaped at the chance to work on what would certainly be one of the most challenging engineering feats of modern times.

There have been solar planes before, but none quite like Solar Impulse. The plane’s 61-meter-long wingspan accommodates 12 000 photovoltaic cells to drive its four propellers. To keep the plane flying through the night, any excess power is stored in lithium polymer batteries, which need to be encased in specially designed insulation so that they’ll continue to function as the temperature dips below -40 °C. The batteries, at 400 kilograms, are the heaviest thing about the otherwise gossamer aircraft, which is designed to carry only the pilot. The initial prototype should be completed in the spring; another craft will be built for the actual round-the-world mission. Plans call for the mission flight, slated for 2011, to take place in five stages, enabling Piccard and Borschberg to take turns piloting.

With two years to go, design and engineering work have kicked into high gear. Lauper painstakingly tracks every detail of every activity, from the plane’s overall design to the operational minutiae of the flight. Each week, he meets with the team leaders to go over what should be getting done and what isn’t.

The Solar Impulse team numbers 60 engineers and other staff, with about 100 outside advisors. At lunchtime in the airfield’s canteen, colleagues of all ages hail Lauper in a number of languages. His command of French, German, English, and the local Swiss German dialect comes in handy. He says that he spends a lot of time on the phone but that face-to-face contact is critical. “E-mail is an information carrier,” he says, “not a communicating tool.”

Being at the heart of a start-up appeals to him, he says: “I have this central position. I’m involved in many discussions on the technical side but also in organizing events. And if I can help somewhere, I will help, in any kind of area. So it’s very, very, very diverse. It’s an adventure!”

About the Author

Giselle Weiss is a freelance writer based in Basel, Switzerland. This is the second time that Weiss has written about the project for IEEE Spectrum. In 2004, she interviewed one of its leaders shortly after the effort got under way. Back then, she says, “You could actually get [cofounder] Bertrand Piccard at home at night on the phone.” These days the project is a bigger, glossier enterprise, but the challenge of getting the plane in the air remains—to say nothing of getting Piccard on the phone.

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.