Unmanned Sailboat Traverses The North Atlantic

Sailboats have been traversing the Atlantic Ocean since before 1592, sailing through sunshine, wind, and rain. The one thing that they’ve all had in common has been a captain to pilot the ship across this vast watery expanse, at least until now. A company called Offshore Sensing has sailed an unmanned vessel all the way from Canada to Ireland.

The ship, called the Sailbuoy, attempted the journey last year as well but only made it about halfway before the mission was abandoned. This year, however, the voyage was finally completed, and this craft is officially the first unmanned ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The journey took about 80 days using sails and a small set of solar panels to drive the control electronics.

Using this technology, the company can investigate wave activity in specific areas of the ocean without having to send out a manned vessel to install a permanent buoy. The sailbuoy simply uses its autonomy to stay in a particular patch of ocean. There have been other missions that the sailbuoy has been tasked with as well, such as investigating the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. With a reliable craft like this, it becomes much easier, safer, and less expensive to explore the ocean’s surface.

Thanks to [Andy] for the tip!

Quadcopter Ditches Batteries; Flies on Solar Power Alone

It seems kind of obvious when you think about it: why not just stick a solar panel on a quadcopter so it can fly on solar power? Unfortunately, physics is a cruel mistress, and it gets a bit more complex when you look at problems like weight to power ratios, panel efficiency, and similar tedious technical details. This group of National University of Singapore students has gone some way to overcome these technical issues, though: they just built a drone that is powered from solar power alone, with no batteries or other power source.

Their creation is a custom-built quadcopter made with carbon fiber that weighs just 2.6kg (about 5.7lbs), but which has about 4 square meters (about 43 square feet) of solar panels. By testing and hand-selecting the panels with the best efficiency, they were able to generate enough power to drive the four rotors, and have managed to achieve altitudes of up to 10 meters. The students have been working on prototypes of this since 2012, when their first version could only generate 45% of the power needed for flight. So, reaching 100% of flight power in the demo shown below is a significant step.

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Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

Tiny Solar Energy Module (TSEM) Brings Big Performance

The Tiny Solar Energy Module (TSEM) by [Jasper Sikken] is not only physically tiny at one-inch square, but it is all about gathering tiny amounts of solar energy — amounts too small to be useful in a conventional sense — and getting meaningful work done, like charging a battery for later use. Elements that make this board easy to integrate into other projects include castellated vias, 1.8 V and 3.3 V regulated outputs that are active when the connected battery has a useful charge, and a low battery warning that informs the user of impending shutdown when the battery runs low. The two surface-mount solar cells included on the tiny board are capable of harvesting even indoor light, but the board also has connection points for using larger external solar cells if needed.

The board shows excellent workmanship and thoughtful features; it was one of the twenty Power Harvesting Challenge finalists chosen to head to the final round of The Hackaday Prize. The Hackaday Prize is still underway, with the Human-Computer Interface Challenge running until August 27th. That will be followed by the Musical Instrument Challenge before the finals spin up. If you haven’t started yet, there’s still time to make your mark. All you need is a documented idea, so start your entry today.

PTPM Energy Scavenger Aims for Maintenance-Free Sensor Nodes

[Mile]’s PTPM Energy Scavenger takes the scavenging idea seriously and is designed to gather not only solar power but also energy from temperature differentials, vibrations, and magnetic induction. The idea is to make wireless sensor nodes that can be self-powered and require minimal maintenance. There’s more to the idea than simply doing away with batteries; if the devices are rugged and don’t need maintenance, they can be installed in locations that would otherwise be impractical or awkward. [Mile] says that goal is to reduce the most costly part of any supply chain: human labor.

The prototype is working well with solar energy and supercapacitors for energy storage, but [Mile] sees potential in harvesting other sources, such as piezoelectric energy by mounting the units to active machinery. With a selectable output voltage, optional battery for longer-term storage, and a reference design complete with enclosure, the PPTM Energy Scavenger aims to provide a robust power solution for wireless sensor platforms.

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.

DIY Vs. Commercially Made Solar Panel

The price of commercially made solar panels on eBay is around $1 per watt and have been for a few years, but the price of individual solar cells are likewise at a low price per watt, around $0.48.  Looking at those prices, it’s tempting to say that it’d be cheaper to just buy the solar cells and put together your own panels. But is it? Simply adding up all the costs might seem like a good way to tell, but you’d need to make a panel to really see what works and what doesn’t.

Part US$ Euros €
solar cells 53 45
aluminum U-channel 20 17
plexiglass 43 37
adhesive 8 7
clear epoxy resin 40 34
Total $164 140€

And so [GreatScott] did just that, with his own side-by-side comparison. He made a 100-watt solar panel and mounted it on his roof beside his commercially produced 100-watt one and compared their output.

The cost of his DIY panel rose quickly. To make a somewhat comparable panel he needed to buy aluminum U-channels, clear epoxy resin, and more. Shown here is the breakdown of his costs.

His commercial 100 watt solar panel would cost him $103 today (87.90€). Compare that to his $164 DIY panel. Also, his DIY one likely won’t weather as well as the commercial one and may not handle high temperatures as well either. You can see the results of his testing in the video below, along with all his construction steps.

Another component open to DIYers in a solar system is the charge controller which takes the solar panel’s output and uses it to charge the battery, with added features like MPPT. Check out this DIY charge controller with MPPT and WiFi for data logging.

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