What are we up to now?

Now that we’ve been back at MIT for the past two weeks, and [hopefully] caught up on classes, Solar Car is picking up speed again. We’ve done a lot of reflecting on WSC: lessons learned, goals for next races, and of course – the design changes we will be making. 

Right now we’ve been busy with sponsorship, business work, and new member training. 
We’re working toward several goals including design modifications for Chopper v3.0 for this summer’s American Solar Challenge as well as ambitious sponsorship, media, and outreach goals. SEVT’s future is looking bright (pun intended). 
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WSC 2011 Final Results

The final results from WSC went up — the provisional results were contested, and WSC officials found a few accounting errors. We moved up one place to 15th, with the same number of solar kilometers (2222).

Full results here.

Meant to be Bent: a new series on creative interpretation of rules by Adam Delton

As many of you may have ascertained from the blog posts of recent weeks, WSC 2011 was a particularly… challenging World Solar Challenge for the MIT team.  Along the road to Adelaide we had some times where team morale was not particularly high, and it was often during these times that I made it my role to lighten the mood a bit with some completely serious speculation on methods designed to circumvent certain WSC regulations.  By popular request, I am now embarking on a mission to fully explore these interesting and complex ideas and share them with you.  As a disclaimer, all of what I detail in “Meant to be Bent” is completely serious.  The concepts that follow have been explained to WSC officials in a face-to-face setting, and each one has failed to be disallowed under the current set of rules.  That said, I cannot guarantee their compliance with 2013 rules.  So now, for Meant to be Bent, Episode I:


Swarm of Insolation Disrupting High Altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka SIDHAUAV)

– the concept is that the team will invest in repurposing discarded military drones to automatically track the position of other solar teams’ vehicles during the race day from a high altitude, and maintaining a position directly between the sun of our solar system and that team’s array of solar cells

-the effect is simulated here on the UC Berkeley, Team CalSol’s 2011 vehicle, “Impulse”


(head to calsol.berkeley.edu to check out Impulse and our good friends at CalSol)

– by remaining high enough in the air, the drone can perform its task relatively undetected, by resembling a (strangely persistent) soaring bird

– modifications to the wings may need to be made to increase the shadow size of the craft

– with a fleet of these artificially creating less-than-ideal sun conditions for non-MIT vehicles, we will secure ourselves a nice edge over the competition

Bottom Line:
Cost: $40 million per drone (possible price break for order of 30+)
Time: full-time project for several aerospace engineers, electrical engineers, and computer science seniors / grad students
Legality: undetectable
Awesome-Factor: 7.8/10

Further Exploration:
– training actual birds to block insolation
– mirror/lens/fiber optic system on drones to redirect intercepted sunlight to MIT array for further advantage

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More Race Photos

A couple more race photos! Photo credit: Simon Calcutt (our awesome British Electrical Engineer).  Simon had worked with the team when he had been at MIT as an exchange student from Cambridge University. It was wonderful to have him join us in Australia this year.

The team at the finish line: Victoria Square in Adelaide.
Chopper in the Australian outback. 

Epic sunset picture.
Chopper + Trailer under the night sky.
Driving through the rain. Rain-X and Silicone sealant go a long way.
Kelly cruising along.

Team paparazzi taking pictures of our lead car followed by the solar car and chase. 

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Day 7 – River Deep, Mountain High

At the end of Day 6, we laid out our ole’ trusty blue tarp at a campground in Glendambo and slept there*. We woke up to a sky full of clouds and misery.

Our scout car drove south, seeking sunnier skies. The rest of the team, with our trailered car, followed scout forward until we found a nice, flat spot with decent sun. After charging our pack from the array, we trailered the car back a couple hundred kilometers and proceeded to drive Chopper forward until we hit Port Augusta. Along the way, we encountered plenty of rolling hills, cattle grates, gusts of wind, and fast road trains.

Waiting for the clouds to break during our morning charge:

Solarcars were not allowed to drive south of Port Augusta after a certain time, so we trailered Chopper and took our convoy south to Adelaide.

We dropped out bags off at Quest in Adelaide and devoured a Lebanese meal. As you may know, Adelaide means partytime!, so we proceeded to meet up with other teams and celebrate the end of the race.

On Sunday, we drove up to the WSC finish line in Victoria Square. Rachel, Andy, and Annette then dashed off to the airport to catch their flights home. The rest of the team cleaned out our support vehicles, packed our supplies, and got ready to ship the trailer home.

That night, we attended the awards ceremony and got to congratulate the seven teams that finished the race without trailering. I’d like to give kudos to the UMichigan team not only for performing well, but also for embodying the spirit of the race and giving us help when we needed it. Thanks, UM, for lending us battery modules. You da best.

The race results were released that night, and we saw that we finished 16th out of the 37 (or 35?) competing teams.

The next morning, we flew out of Adelaide and encountered various mishaps at the Sydney airport and at LAX. We are now safely in Cambridge 😀

We are humbled by the turn of events that happened in WSC 2011: hellish circumstances, a gracious donation, broken dreams, and new hope. Here’s a big THANK YOU to everyone who contributed time, energy, money, materials, and well wishes to the team.

WSC 2011
(Both photos by Chris Pentacoff. Thanks dude.)
*At the end of Day 6 we drove our convoy north of Glendambo, desperate to find sun for an evening charge.  While passing a non-MIT vehicle, our truck hit an emu which later died. Nameless Emu, we apologize deeply…

Quick race update, more to come

On the last day we woke up to grey skies with a few patches of sun in the distance. We tried to trailer to an area with more sun, but ended up underestimating how much the clouds would clear up and had to trailer back up the highway a bit to add more solar miles to our trip. In the end, we completed 2222 km on solar power (total coincidence for the number of km) and ended up in 16th place based on provisional results. After Port Augusta, we packed the car up again to get to Adelaide for the night and a much deserved night off. 

On Sunday morning, the WSC officials kindly let us parade to the finish line out of finishing order so that I could cross the finish line with the team and still make my flight back to the states at 10:50am. A few excited team members made the traditional jump into the fountain and we took our car through the final inspection to show we had complied with race regulations. 
Everyone flew home on Monday to get back to classes and start making up work we missed for the race. Thank you to all the MIT professors who have made coming to WSC possible for the SEVT in the middle of the semester.
We’ll post a bunch more pictures of the race soon. Thanks to everyone who has been following our blog over the race. Our total number of page views has more than doubled in the past month. It’s very exciting to have some many people checking in on our progress.
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Day 6 – Ain’t no sunshine

After an interesting night spent huddled up in tents, cars, and the trailer to shield ourselves from the downpours, we woke up to a miserable sight: heavy clouds and a reading of 0.166 Amps on the test solar cell on roof of our chase car. Needless to say we were not getting a morning charge, much less making the next checkpoint before closing.
So after some reluctance, we started off the morning with the car in the trailer – our first time since we had started the race some 1901 kilometres prior. We were all a bit disappointed to have to pack Chopper up inside, but pretty proud of how far we had gotten considering we had run the entire race on 16kg of lithium-ion cells (when rules allow 21kg) [Why? see this blog post] as well as faced some other significant hurdles.
Chopper del Sol underneath an overcast sky.
We did manage to get a brief charge in to drive further, increasing our solar kilometers travelled. Couple historical landmarks passed include Australia’s Dog Fence which, at 7000km, is the longest fence in the world. It keeps the wild dogs (dingos) out of sheep country in Southern Australia. With all that hype we were expecting something more dramatic, but turns out it was just a cattle grid and some barbed wire. We also passed a lot of opal mines along the way.
The weather remained dreadful all afternoon. We kept driving along, watching the Amp-hours consumed slowly increase on our battery pack. To show how rotten our luck has been, here a screen shot of the satellite imagery of the mass of clouds sitting mostly immobile above the Stuart Highway for today:
The clouds sitting over the Stuart Highway.
We’re camped out in Glendambo, some 600km north of the race finish, waiting for some sun tomorrow to hopefully power us through the finish to Adelaide. The forecast is looking good and we saw a couple stars tonight.
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Day 5 – Sunshine and Daisies in Hell and High Water

Geezus. What the hell is going on. Today was by far the craziest day on the race. We faced fire, smoke, rain, thunder, lightning and abundant sunshine all in one day. Read on.

We started the day with a fantastic morning charge, and the day was looking great. Our array was rocking, we were passing teams left and right, and cruising at up to 76 kph without significantly draining our pack. Our position over the last couple days has moved up a few places, and now we’re chasing the Swiss at 16th place (out of 35 teams). With all the challenges we’ve faced and overcome, we’re proud to be in that position. We also needed to gain time to make the Alice Springs checkpoint since you can only miss one checkpoint before being required to trailer your solar car.

We hit the Alice Springs checkpoint in the early morning (the closest we came to city driving yet) and cruised through. For the rest of the day, we got even more sunshine, allowing us to hit our highest speed yet. Things were looking good for the SEVT, but the weather gods did not have more sun in store for us.

Our scout and ground crew back home reported gathering clouds, and we knew we were headed into some crazy weather. At the mid-afternoon Kulgera checkpoint, we had gained two hours on the next team, and officials were also reporting brush fires up ahead. We scrambled out of Kulgera and straight into ever-increasingly grey skies. Below is our strategy team trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.

About a half hour out of Kulgera, we could see smoke billowing in the distance. As we neared, we could even see flames in the distance and the fire got closer to the road the further south we went. We were shortly in a hellish wasteland of burning shrubbery and scorched earth. The scene was surreal. Below is the solar car passing the scorched shoulder – we could literally see the brush and trees burning.

We first hit rain at around 2-3pm. Lauren was unfazed, and we kept charging through the rain, no matter how hard it got. Rain-X and a little silicone on the canopy seal go a long way. We dropped our speed to account for the drop in array power, but never stopped moving forward. We don’t give up that easily.

The weather stayed grey and by 4pm our array was producing no power at all. We decided to stop about 20 minutes early to avoid completely emptying our battery pack when we found a reasonable camping site. We gathered our cars and built a covering from the rain so we could cook dinner and stay reasonably dry. I’m currently writing this post from the front seat of our chase vehicle while it’s pouring outside. Maybe we’ll get some sun tomorrow to keep going, otherwise we may need to trailer south towards Adelaide. For now, we’re sleeping in the trailer, tents and the cars while this weather clears out. We’ll let you know how tomorrow turns out.

Major props to Annette and Andy Batzer, the parents of one of our students. They joined us in 2009 and came back to support the team. They have been there time and time again to help cook, manage and take care of every other little thing that we forgot. Today, they set up a shelter and cooked us some fantastic spaghetti in ludicrous amounts. A huge thank you to Andy and Annette for the massive amount of work they have put into making this trip a success.

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Day 4 – Two girls, one solar car

SUNSHINE! Finally. The sun broke through today, topping off our battery pack after yesterday’s hold at Tennant Creek. That meant we had a completely full battery pack starting this morning, along with abundant sunshine.

We upped our speed to 60-70 kph, finally allowing Chopper to strut its stuff. Let me introduce you to our drivers, Lauren and Kelly. They have been at the helm of Chopper, cruising down the highway for extremely long shifts. A solar car driver shift lasts around 4-5 hours (the time between checkpoints). Lauren (a senior mechanical engineer) is pictured below, rockin some team-issued aviators before her driving shift.

Kelly (a senior electrical engineer) took the earlier shift, driving 5 hours in the heat and humidity to make it to the next checkpoint. They honestly do have the most exhausting job on the team. Below, tired driver is tired.

One terrifying moment was when we were run off the road by an oversize load trucking the other way. Our scout warned us via radio a large truck was coming, and when we responded “ok well move over to the edge of the lane” they told us “NO GET THE HELL OFF THE ROAD”. We wisely followed their advice.

We still had some clouds in the afternoon, but we at least got some awesome pics out of it. At the end of day 4, we made it to the Tropic of Capricorn, juts north of Alice Springs. Our evening charge also gave us a beautiful sunset, its reflection captured here off the solar array.

Tonight, were staying just a few meters from the Tropic of Capricorn landmark. After some good food and hanging out with Durham University (also at our campsite). Below is a pic from our campsite. Another day tomorrow – right now we’ve got to catch some sleep for our morning charge.

Day 3 – Solar Car vs Nature

And were still choppin. The first thing we noticed was the cloud layer this morning – enough clouds to the east that our morning charge was far from expected. With that, we headed down Stuart Hwy at a conservative pace in order to charge the battery pack over the length of the drive.

Once again, nature put up a tough fight. There were some major fires to the south throwing up large smoke clouds – this led to a huge decrease in array power. We played it safe most of the day, recharging our pack but still making headway. We planned to pass the Tennant Creek checkpoint at 1pm or so, but found ourselves with a dozen other teams who had been held at the checkpoint.

Apparently a road closure further south due to the fires held up some teams for around 4 hours, so WSC decided to hold all teams at the Tennant Creek checkpoint by the same amount. What that means for us (and the other teams) is that we will camp here tonight, and continue on tomorrow morning when our hold is complete. Although this allows us to get a complete charge on our battery pack, it makes completion of the race a lot more difficult (since we’ve been delayed by 4 hours). We will work out our strategy tonight to figure out our optimal speed and gain on our competitors tomorrow. In the pic below were hanging out at Tennant Creek and charging.

One thing we noticed is that our conventional moped tires are performing quite poorly. There has been quite a lot of commotion surrounding tires at WSC, mostly because Michelin decided not to provide their tires to most teams, including MIT. With our own commercially available tires having a rolling resistance coefficient three times that of the Michelins, there is little chance that we and our moped-tire compatriots can stand upon the podium. We will continue with these tires even though it leaves us at a pretty big disadvantage.

For now, were staying at Tennant Creek with a dozen other teams, and taking off tomorrow. We’ll update you with more info as we get it. Oh and check out the baby kangaroo!

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