Instructables

Introduction:
This instructable will show you how to create a solar powered plane. This project was done at Newman Smith High School (Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District [CFBISD]) in Carrollton, Texas and was sponsored by the Texas A&M University Society of Flight Test Engineers. We received most of the needed parts from Texas A&M University and built the plane for the High School Solar Plane Competition on May 25, 2013. The project is not for the beginner as it gets a bit complicated. Skills that you will need include soldering skills, plane building skills, monokoting skills, and general R/C plane knowledge. Our team ended up with the Most Creative award and 2nd place in Endurance.

Special Thanks to Texas A&M University, Newman Smith High School Teachers and Principal & the DIY Drones Community (http://diydrones.com/forum/topics/solar-powered-plane).

Below are some pictures of the completed project. The next step will be the list of materials needed.
Also included below is the link for build basics and aircraft aerodynamics- there are two PowerPoints included by Texas A&M University. If you are going to do the project, printing out these two PowerPoints will help you immensely. However, please take note that all the cells must be in series, not in parallel as one of the PowerPoint presentations describes.
https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_bYmGJ0v1Ncb283TF8tWXF6ZWc&usp=sharing

Want to see more photos? PM me and I'll give you a link.

UPDATE: 03/31/2014: Research Paper now included.

Step 1: Materials

Solarplane 012.JPG
Solarplane 014.JPG
Solarplane 015.JPG
Materials Needed: 
Glider (we used the Gentle Lady) 
Monokote (We ended up using about 3 rolls- two for the 8 foot wing [bottom] & body of the plane and another clear roll for the panels)
3x6 Solar Panels
Tabbing Wire
Bus Wire
Normal Wire
Micro Servos 
Push Rods 
Nylon Control Horns 
Propeller 
Li-Po Battery
ESC (Electronic Speed Controller) 
Charger 
Connectors (for Wires) 
Receiver 
Propeller 
Electric Motor 
CA Glue 
Heat Shrink Tubing 
Sewing String 
Pairing Connector (depends on your transmitter/receiver) 
Nuts (for balancing wing) 
Balsa Wood Sheets (optional- depends on how big your wing is) 

Tools: 
Soldering Iron
Flux
Solder 
Hobby Knife and extra blades 
Heat Gun 
Sealing Iron 
Large Table 
Sand Paper 
Drill
Wire Cutter 
Digital Multi-Meter
First Aid Kit 






Step 2: Building the Wing

To begin the project, start by building the wing. The wing is where the panels will go on. Depending on what glider/plane kit you use, you may want to do it differently. We extended our two meter wing span to make it 8 feet to fit 22 panels in-between the ribs. The other teams that we competed with did not do so this way. They put the panels directly on the wings and did not extend the wing span. By extending the wing span and putting the panels in between, we used less ribs and made the wing more fragile, but it paid off and did not break because we did a pretty good job of reinforcing it. 

To extend our wing, we cut out extra ribs from some balsas wood and duplicated the middle of the wing to extend it. 

Follow the plans provided with your kit and build the wing. Extend the wing from the center if necessary. 

Step 3: Solar Panels

Solar Panels: something that is a pain in the butt to install. 
These solar panels were about as fragile as anything we had ever handled before. Rigid and inflexible, we broke about half of them. 
Handling them with the uttermost care is very important to avoid damage to them. Some cracks are okay, it just depends on where they are located and how they broke. Searching up how solar panels work, how to cut them, and how to tab them really helps. 

Some background information: The shiny blue side of the panel is negative. The bottom grey side is positive. To connect in series, connect the top tabbing wire to the bottom tabbing wire. There is more information in the PowerPoint. 

After tabbing the cells, CA glue them onto the wing in-between the ribs. After doing so, then connect them in series carefully with the soldering iron, making sure to not hurt yourself. 

The bus wires go at the end of the panels and are connected to a wire that leads to the middle of the wing from either side. 

Step 4: Fuselage, Monokote & Electronics

Building the fuselage
The construction of the fuselage is not very difficult. Follow the instructions on the airplane plan provided. Wiring on the other hand may be more difficult. If you extend the wing, the CG on the plane may shift and you might have to do some minor modifications on servo placement. Heat shrink all electrical components to avoid any short circuits.


Monokote

Monokoting is not hard either. Use youtube videos to learn how to do it. Make sure when you are monokoting the wing, do the bottom first and then the top and make sure you curve the monotkote over to maintain a good airfoil and reduce any drag. You want to have as much laminar flow as possible. Make sure to use clear monokote for the top of the wing so the solar panels can charge. Cut and Iron the monokote on the wing, then blow it with the heat gun so it contracts and creates a tight wrap around the skeleton of the wing. 

Wiring & Electronics
Follow the PowerPoints provided and you should be fine. Put the Nylon control horns where they belong and wrap them in tape so they don't fall off in flight. 

Step 5: Testing Electronic Parts

To test the solar panels, plug them all into the charger where they belong and bring it outside to test on a sunny day. Plug the DMM into the output and measure the voltage. The charger that we used only started charging when the voltage was greater than 12 volts. 

To test the other parts, pair the receiver and the transmitter together. Depending on which brand on transmitter you use, you may need a pairing plug. 

Step 6: Test Flying

Bring the plane to an airfield and find an experienced pilot to fly the plane. That person will give you further instruction on how to modify the plane to give it better flight. For us, we needed to reinforce the elevator and rudder. We accomplished that with duct tape. 

Step 7: Conclusion

Picture of Conclusion
group photo.jpg
Solar Impulse 156.JPG
Solar Impulse 162.JPG
The Solar Plane project is an amazing starting point to getting into green energy, R/C, planes, electronics, aerospace, or just about anything else. As for our team, we had an amazing four person group plus our amazing teacher. If you're in a team, make some team shirts, it boosts morale and on competition day, everyone knows who you are. 

We ended up with 2nd in endurance because the charger wouldn't charge below 12 volts and competition day was an overcast day. But having the cells between the ribs gave us creativity points and using duct tape gave the judges a bit of a kick. We ended up with the most creative award and we're proud. From doing this project, you will learn so much about planes, solar energy, teamwork. It is a great way to spend a couple of weeks on a cool project. 

Make sure that if you're interested in green technology and solar planes in general, check out the Swiss project Solar Impulse. Our team got to chat with them when they came to Dallas because of our involvement in a similar project. : http://www.solarimpulse.com/

This dude in Finland is also worth checking out. Here's his Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/SolarDrone 

Steps from here: To move beyond what we've created for now, we can add an auto-pilot system, cameras, and other equipment to make it a semi-autonomous drone. Light sensors can be added on either side of the wing and the plane can circle up the sky  with maximum sun exposure on the panels; then at night, it can loiter around, slowly circling back down to Earth. This plan however, would require a new plane, a new design, and a lot of effort, but that is what we intend on doing next year. Heck, we could even connect  the plane to a cell tower as one commenter below suggested. The GPS system would then tell people in the vicinity of the plane that the plane is there and the plane could fly over on top, giving the people a live bird's eye view of themselves. Awesome plan, right? The only part getting the technology down is acquiring FAA approval to do such a project. 
 
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nina_wahid8 days ago

hello.

great plane. can i see more photos and all the steps of this project? :)

Hey.

Great job guys, just wondering how much will it cost me if i want to buy this particular model ( The whole Set with the remote control and all items i need to fly this ) .

Regards.

Hey! Thanks.

It's been a long while since this project-but I'll give you the pricing the best I can remember it. It might be a good idea to have someone sponsor you because costs may run a bit high. Many of the on board stuff was the "cheapest" items available on the market-like the transmitter (remote control) and the receiver. We didn't use those for the test flight-some long time hobbyists used theirs to fly the plane....which means it might be a good idea to find a buddy who already does this as a hobby.

Transmitter - I recommend Turnigy 9x: $60 (decent quality)
Gentle Lady Glider: $60
Solar Cells: $20
MPPT: $100
Servos, Wiring, Monokote, Solder: $60
LiPo Battery: $30
Motor & ESC: $30
Tools (Solder gun, Heat Gun, CA Glue): $40
Other household tools: n/a
Total Cost: $400
Final Cost (overestimation by 25% to reflect increased market costs & other unknown variables): $500

I hope that the rough estimation is okay. We didn't pay for most of the parts because Texas A&M paid for the materials.

Tell me how your build goes. I'd love to see the final product and would be glad to share any expertise along the way if you run into trouble. Anything I can't answer, I'll forward to my team to see if they can help.

thanks

Draftmen8882 months ago

This plane really very cool...

mrsplooge4 months ago

http://plasticphotovoltaics.org/flextrode.html

jeffmazter406 (author)  mrsplooge4 months ago

Hey! Thank you for the link! I just signed up my high school's Science & Engineering Pathway for the sample...too bad I just graduated from High School so I might not get a chance to experiment with the cell...but since shipping is "only" 4 weeks, I might have a chance to experiment with it before the new kiddos get to it.

Awesome build, i love it.. You could add a micro controller with gps and program in a location and it will fly autonomously. did this with a quad copter had the micro controller set to the gps on my phone and it few 10 miles right to my position. all in all great job. i will def be building one of these. thank for the inspiration.

jeffmazter406 (author)  electronicz guy4 months ago

Thank you!

For your quadcopter, what microcontroller did you use? APM I'm assuming? And 10 miles!? (totally not line of sight though if you're in the US...) How long is the flight time and what's your setup - radio system, battery, etc.? I have a quad with a 4000mah battery-around a 15 min flight time to 20%. Actually, I took a picture of my whole senior class using the quad on loiter mode.

Watermark Protected Version.jpg
Canderton625 months ago
Hi there I am very interested in solar flight I am a paramotor pilot and I fly an electric paramotor in the south of England the batteries I use are RC 6s 8000ma two of these in series to give a total of 44.4 volts what I would like to do is combine flexible solar panels on top of my paraglider wing with my the batteries to extend the flight times do you think this is possible ? And do you have any sugestions on how I would be able to intergrate them ? Here is a YouTube video the first test flights in Slovakia Electric Paramotor: http://youtu.be/6rzrXMTFfDw
legamin6 months ago

that's so cool! Prepare for a late night call from a soft spoken serious voice "mr smith" who wonders..."do you think a four ounce high resolution camera and energy cell could be added...if it were operated in say...a VERY sunny environment.." Just kidding! This gives the rest of us a great jump off point to experiment and create. Thanx!

jeffmazter406 (author)  legamin6 months ago

Haha, nice one. But to be honest, you could probably attach a four ounce HD camera no problem. Too bad our plane has retired now...it's just just hanging off the ceiling now, hopefully inspiring the other students to do more awesome projects.

rggovani7 months ago

Can you give me the dimensions of the genasun solar charge controller after it's cover has been removed?

jeffmazter406 (author)  rggovani7 months ago

Sure thing!

So the length is 83.5mm. Which should be about the same with the cover on.
And the width is approx. 47.72mm and is also about the same with the cover on.

The height is approx. 17.29mm at the highest point. See picture.
The height of all the shorter components is approx. 10.47

I hope that helps!

20140317_133454.jpg

Thank you that helps alot.

I noticed from your picture that you are using 11.1V Genasun charger?

I checked out the the Genasun chargers and they dont have 11.1V charger, Did you guys buy a custom voltage Genasun charger?

jeffmazter406 (author)  rggovani7 months ago

You're welcome.

Yeah, I think you're probably correct. Sorry, I can't give you a straight answer because Texas A&M University sponsored this project and gave us the majority of the parts.

I'm going to assume it was this one: http://genasun.com/all-products/solar-charge-controllers/for-lithium/gv-5-li-lithium-5a-solar-charge-controller/ with the custom voltage option.

Why did you say that the electronics will fry if anything is connected to the load?

The way i see it the ESC should be connected to the load? or am i wrong?

jeffmazter406 (author)  rggovani6 months ago

That is correct: anything connected to the load will apparently fry. The A&M guys specifically warned us about doing that.

Did you take a look at the PowerPoint? The diagram might explain better than I can with words.

I looked at the Genasun GV-5 manual. it Turns out that the load only supports 5Amps, and it says to connect dirrectly to the battery if one wants to use over 5Amps. Since you need more then 5 Amps to run the motor, i think thats why the ESC is not connected to the Load.

jeffmazter406 (author)  rggovani6 months ago

Ahh. Okay, that sounds reasonable.

Apologies if my answers aren't all that helpful. It's been a full year now. This year, there were no funds to do the project again.

What battery are you guys using?

Looks like 11.1 V, am i right? What is the mAh on the battery?

And do you know approximately how much charge were the solar cells providing?

jeffmazter406 (author)  rggovani6 months ago

Yup, the battery is 11.1V 3S. I can't remember the mAh but I believe it was 1200mAh or something similar.

The solar cells in that configuration provided us just under 12 V, we needed 12 to charge. And so the amperage was something like 3.6A.

ahdai1 year ago
They are solar cells you are working with.
astral_mage ahdai9 months ago

http://www.powerfilmsolar.com/ . copy and search. better power and ma 4 yr investment. plus can handle warp-age better.

jeffmazter406 (author)  ahdai1 year ago
Yup, those are3x6 solar cells.
astral_mage9 months ago

have u tried using flexible solar panels. they should be able to supply more power. 4 less weight. http://www.powerfilmsolar.com/ . ok copy an paste that link. then go to hown to buy. find where you are. to get the best price.

ilayamaran9 months ago
what is the exact name of the solar panel you hav used in this model...
jeffmazter406 (author)  ilayamaran9 months ago
I believe the panels were from everbright solar. Texas A&M bought the parts for us. They are standard polycrystalline cells. Something like this:http://www.ebay.com/bhp/1kw-3x6-solar-cells
Hey I noticed your URL is "http://www.instructables.com/id/Introduction-47/", may I reset it to "http://www.instructables.com/id/Solar-Plane/"?

Thanks
Audrey
Community Manger
jeffmazter406 (author)  audreyobscura1 year ago
I wouldn't mind if you reset it. But I'm wondering... if you reset the URL, will the hyperlinks from websites that link to the page no longer work? I know that treehugger.com and a few other websites have shared the instructable so the people clicking the hyperlinks may not get to the page if the URL was changed?
That would affect those links. That's ok! I should of caught it sooner!
jeffmazter406 (author)  audreyobscura1 year ago
Okay, no problem! I messed up when I was typing in the title and put "Introduction" instead of Solar Plane.
abalza1 year ago
do you ever tested the flying time in sunny day and in cloudy day? Solar panel make such difference?
jeffmazter406 (author)  abalza1 year ago
We've only tested flying on a cloudy day. We never got a chance to test on a sunny day. However, according to the calculations provided by some experts below, they say that even with a sunny day, our battery would have still been drained in due time, due to the insufficient amount of panels. However, it would have had more air time because the battery would have been able to charge, unlike on the cloudy day where the MPPT was not activated because the input was under 12 volts.
tlhkytz1 year ago
türkiye in hı, perfect project.
jeffmazter406 (author)  tlhkytz1 year ago
Thanks!
Bodmer1 year ago
I'm interested to know what the mAh rating of the Lipo battery used is...
jeffmazter406 (author)  Bodmer1 year ago
I'm not sure about that one. Texas A&M plugged in their Lipo battery on that day. During ground tests, we used a pack of AA's to run the plane. Judging from the pictures, the battery is some sort of Hyperion G3, but I have no idea what the mAh rating is. I'll see if I can get an answer.
OK, can you estimate the size from the photo, ie length, width, depth?

Also do you know the approximate all up weight of the model? (this is so I can calculate the wing loading and estimate the power needed for level flight).
jeffmazter406 (author)  Bodmer1 year ago
okay, I got it. It's 1100 mAh.

I can get an accurate weight measurement on Monday when we go back to school.
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