The Cult Of Really Low-Power Circuits: Scrounging, Sipping, And Seeing Power

If you’ve ever tried to make a really low-power circuit — especially one that runs on harvested power — you have probably fallen into at least a few of the many traps that await the unwary in this particular realm of electronic design. Well, Dave Young has been there, seen the traps, and lived to tell about it. In these territories, even “simple” systems can exhibit very complex, and sometimes downright confusing behavior when all possible operating conditions are considered. In his 2019 Hackaday Superconference talk: Scrounging, Sipping, and Seeing Power — Techniques For Planning, Implementing, And Verifying Off-Grid Power Systems, Dave discusses a number of these issues, how they interplay with low-power designs, and tricks he’s collected over the years to design and, more importantly, test these deceptively simple systems.

Dave is an electrical engineer and his company, Young Circuit Designs, has worked in the test and measurement, energy, and low-power consumer industries. We were lucky to have him share some of his 15 years of experience on the Supercon stage this past November, specifically discussing devices powered from harvested energy, be it wave energy (think oceans not RF), thermal energy, or solar. The first lesson is that in these systems, architecture is key. Digging deeper, Dave considers three aspects of the architecture, as mentioned in the talk title: scrounging, sipping, and seeing power.

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ESP32 Makes Great MPPT Controller In Low-Cost Solar Installation

Solar power projects have become, in general, a matter of selecting components like panels and batteries, hooking them together with industry-standard connectors, and sitting back to watch the free electricity flow. As such, solar projects have become a bit boring, so it’s not often we see one that attracts our attention the way this dirt-cheap open-source solar project does.

The backstory on [Tim O’Brien]’s DIY off-grid PV system starts with his desire to charge his eWheel, which amounts to a battery-powered standing unicycle. They look like a fun option for getting around an urban environment if you have the requisite degree of coordination, which we clearly lack. But charging something like that or an eBike is a great use case for solar, especially since [Tim] happened upon a 450W PV panel on the cheap. Sadly, the panel was a commercial unit, and compatible off-the-shelf MPPT, or maximum power-point tracking, controllers are expensive.

His solution was to build his own controller using a cheap DC-DC converter that just so happens to have serial remote control. An ESP32 monitors the panel voltage and controls the buck converter to run whatever he wants. When he’s not charging his eWheel, the system runs his laptop and router. As a bonus, the ESP32 talks to IoT services like and Thingspeak, allowing him to track MPPT data without shipping it off to parts unknown.

While we appreciate a DIY MPPT controller and like [Tim]’s build, we feel like the documentation needs a bit of fleshing out. With solar installations, the devil is in the details, and not addressing seemingly mundane issues like cable routing and connector installation can lead to disaster.

Soaring With The Sun: 4 Years Of Solar RC Planes

Many of us have projects that end up spanning multiple years and multiple iterations, and gets revisited every time inspiration strikes and you’ve forgotten just how much work and frustration the previous round was. For [Daniel Riley] AKA [rctestflight] that project is a solar powered RC plane which to date spans 4 years, 4 versions and 13 videos. It is a treasure trove of information collected through hard experience, covering carbon fibre construction techniques, solar power management and the challenges of testing in the real world, among others.

Solar Plane V1 had a 9.5 ft / 2.9 m carbon fibre skeleton wing, covered with transparent film, with the fragile monocrystaline solar cells mounted inside the wing. V1 experienced multiple crashes which shattered all the solar cells, until [Daniel] discovered that the wing flexed under aileron input. It also did not have any form of solar charge control. V2 added a second wing spar to a slightly longer 9.83 ft / 3 m wing, which allowed for more solar cells.

Solar Plane V3 was upgraded to use a single hexagonal spar to save weight while still keeping stiff, and the solar cells were more durable and efficient. [Daniel] did a lot of testing to find an optimal solar charging set-up and found that using the solar array to charge the batteries directly in a well-balanced system actually works equally well or better than an MPPT charge controller.

V4 is a departure from the complicated carbon fibre design, and uses a simple foam board flying wing with a stepped KF airfoil instead. The craft is much smaller with only a 6 ft / 1.83 m wingspan. It performed exceptionally well, keeping the battery fully charged during the entire flight, which unfortunately ended in a crash after adjusting the autopilot. [Daniel] suspects the main reasons for the improved performance are higher quality solar panels and the fact that there is no longer film covering the cells.

We look forward to seeing where this project goes! Check out Solar Plane V4 after the break.

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Tacking Against The Sun: Flying A Batteryless Solar RC Plane Is Almost Like Sailing

Flying on the power of the sun is definitely not a new idea, but it usually involves a battery between the solar panels and the propulsion system. [ukanduit] decided to lose the battery completely and control the speed of the motor with the output of the solar panels. This leads to some interesting flying characteristics, almost akin to sailing.

When a load tries to draw more current than a solar panel can provide, its output falls dramatically, so [ukanduit] had to take this into account. Using a ATTiny85, he built a MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracker) unit that connects between the RC receiver and the motor speed controller. It monitors the output of the panels and modulates the speed of the motor accordingly, while ensuring that there is always enough power to run the servos and receiver. The airframe (named the Solar Bear) is a small lightweight flying wing, with a balsa and carbon fibre frame covered with clear film, with the solar cells housed inside the wing. Since the thrust of the motor is directly proportional to how much sunlight hits the top of wings, it requires the pilot to “tack” against the sun and use momentum to quickly get through turns before orienting into the sun again.

If you want to build your own controller, the schematics and software is up on RC Groups. Check out the Solar Bear in action, flown here by [AJWoods].

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High Efficiency, Open-Sourced MPPT Solar Charger

A few years ago, [Lukas Fässler] needed a solar charge controller and made his own, which he has been improving ever since. The design is now mature, and the High Efficiency MPPT Solar Charger is full of features like data logging, boasts a 97% efficiency over a range of 1 to 75 Watts, and can be used as a standalone unit or incorporated as a module into other systems. One thing that became clear to [Lukas] during the process was that a highly efficient, feature-rich, open-sourced hardware solution for charge controllers just didn’t exist, at least not with the features he had in mind.

Data logging and high efficiency are important for a charge controller, because batteries vary in their characteristics as they recharge and the power generated from things like solar panels varies under different conditions and loads. An MPPT (Maximum Point Power Tracking) charger is a smart unit optimized to handle all these changing conditions for maximum efficiency. We went into some detail on MPPT in the past, and after three years in development creating a modular and configurable design, [Lukas] hopes no one will have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to charge controllers.

AMSAT MPPT Goes To Infinity And Beyond

AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, joined forces with students from Rochester Institute of Technology to create a MPPT attached to a Fox-1B CubeSat. It successfully launched into orbit on November 18th strapped to the back of a Delta II rocket. This analog MPPT, or Maximum Power Point Tracker, is used for optimizing the draw of a power cell in correspondence to the output of solar panels on the 10cm x 10cm satellite. In a nutshell, this works by matching the voltage of the two together. If you haven’t gotten a chance to play around with one of these first hand, Hackaday’s own [Elliot Williams] wrote up a thorough explanation of the glorious MPPT’s efficiency.

This little guy is currently hurtling along in an orbit every 90 minutes. During each of these elliptical trajectories, the satellite undergoes brutal heating and cooling cycles. The team calculated that this package will undergo a total of 29,200 orbits around Earth during its 5 year mission. This means that there are 29,200 tests for it to crack — quite literally — under pressure. To add another level of difficulty, the undergrad team didn’t have funding for automated board assembly. This meant that they had to hand solder over 400 micro components onto this board, adding additional human error to be accounted for in the likelihood of a failure. But so far, this puppy is going strong. This truly shows the struggles that can be overcome with a little elbow grease, hard work, and plain ‘ole good engineering.

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Are You Down With MPPT? (Yeah, You Know Me.)

Solar cells have gotten cheaper and cheaper, and are becoming an economically viable source of renewable energy in many parts of the world. Capturing the optimal amount of energy from a solar panel is a tricky business, however. First there are a raft of physical prerequisites to operating efficiently: the panel needs to be kept clean so the sun can reach the cells, the panel needs to point at the sun, and it’s best if they’re kept from getting too hot.

Along with these physical demands, solar panels are electrically finicky as well. In particular, the amount of power they produce is strongly dependent on the electrical load that they’re presented, and this optimal load varies depending on how much illumination the panel receives. Maximum power-point trackers (MPPT) ideally keep the panel electrically in the zone even as little fluffy clouds roam the skies or the sun sinks in the west. Using MPPT can pull 20-30% more power out of a given cell, and the techniques are eminently hacker-friendly. If you’ve never played around with solar panels before, you should. Read on to see how!

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