High school student teams build and race sophisticated solar-powered RC cars with the help of an instructive online hub.
How do we reach today's high-school kids with vital messages about energy efficiency and renewable energy? It ain't gonna be easy - they've got smartphones and girlfriends and video games and boyfriends and some of them even have real drivers' licenses already. Good luck. Frankly, we would need something ridiculous like a crazy-fast solar-powered radio-controlled car race. Which we now have.
We all love solar energy.
If only we all understood it.
Solar Roller RC cars bring out the eco-techno-maker-learner kid in all of us - and especially so for high schoolers. These custom-built creations are based on parts from 1/10 scale radio-controlled cars but use hand-soldered solar arrays to generate power. The result is a flat, wide, mercilessly efficient craft that can keep going nonstop until the sun sets. Envision your oven door traveling faster than you can sprint - throughout an hourlong race.
Here's the plan:
May 18 - Demo Race
The four existing prototype Solar Rollers will compete in a demonstration race at a National Renewable Energy Laboratory competition in Denver.
May 24 - Kickstarter Completion
We plan to celebrate, thank everyone involved, distribute rewards and connect with a growing community of like-minded hands-on teachers and learners.
June through October - Build Online Hub
Using Kickstarter funds we will create a supportive, instructional online resource for use by the Solar Rollers community nationwide. The hub will be part of the non-profit Solar Energy International's established Online Campus.
2013-14 School Year - Make More Rollers
Using the online hub, we will bring high schools together with makers, solar professionals and RC car racing advisors to make a whole herd of these things - and make 'em go quicker.
Spring of 2014 - Race More Rollers
We will distribute standardized track designs for teams to run on their local tennis court or basketball court on a sunny day of their choice. Results can be compared without geographic restrictions. Given enough Solar Rollers, we will establish regional competitions.
- 2015 - Nationals
- 2016 - Worlds
2026 - Challenge Mars colonists to an interplanetary race
You never know.
While Solar Rollers are made of tangible hardware, what they actually represent is a valuable opportunity for deep, engaging hands-on learning in high schools. Through the process of designing, building, testing, refining and eventually competing, students push themselves and their teammates to learn more about energy efficiency, photovoltaics (solar electricity), motors, batteries, material properties, friction and more. The team starts by building a solar-powered RC car, but the main goal is building their lifelong love of learning.
Solar Rollers do not represent a huge technological leap in terms of advancing what today's top engineers know about solar photovoltaic, electric car or radio control technology. However, for high school students they represent an obviously exciting opportunity for project-based STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) education. These machines naturally attract students who begin brainstorming immediately about improvements to the mechanical and electrical efficiency of the car and maximizing the electricity generated from sunlight by the cartop array.
Accessible Solar Racing.
Currently, interested middle-school students (grades 6-8) compete in the nationwide Junior Solar Sprint - essentially a solar drag race using small string-guided kit cars with simple preassembled solar panels and no electronics. While good competitions do exist for high school students building manned cars and boats, participation is limited to highly committed schools close to race venues. For most students in the US the next available step in solar racing would come after high school. The far more committing American Solar Challenge is a university-level competition complete with large teams of engineering students, budgets reaching into the millions and full-scale solar cars raced by drivers on the open road across continents.
The Solar Rollers race series intends to fill this gap with practical, achievable solar racing during the vital high school years. Budgets are big but not huge (up to $1000 in parts per car) and the car's systems are complex but not incomprehensible. Without carrying a driver, the cars can be much lighter - even to scale - and thus much more efficient than a larger manned vehicle.
This competition will be sanctioned and run by the established Solar In the Schools K-12 outreach program, which is part of Solar Energy International, a non-profit world leader in renewable energy education. On May 18 of 2013, a demo race featuring the first four Solar Rollers will be run as part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Junior Solar Sprint competition in Denver.
What Funding Can Do.
Using funding from Kickstarter, Solar In the Schools will build an online Solar Rollers hub for prospective teams from around the country. This resource will be based in Solar Energy International's successful Online Campus, which already serves more than 8,000 renewable energy students around the world each year. The Solar Rollers hub will serve as a single point of contact for all competing teams along with subject matter experts. Teams taking up the challenge will find tips and tutorials for sponsorship, design, parts shopping, carbuilding and cardriving. Forums allowing photo and video sharing will be established.
Sponsors for the entire program as well as individual teams will be recognized. Community members who are interested in helping teams - namely makers, solar professionals and rc racing experts - will be able to post their own tips or offer direct help to a local team. The Solar Rollers online resource will also post new track designs periodically. These tracks will be exactly the size of any tennis court so that teams can try their luck on a sunny day and post their best times without traveling repeatedly. When enough teams form in an area, regional competitions will be arranged starting in the spring of 2014.
Go for it.
While Solar Rollers uses guidelines similar to a competition originally run for French technical colleges, the actual regulations have been left as open as possible to promote innovation. The solar collection area is limited, as is the overall footprint of the car, and the finished vehicle cannot weigh less than one kilogram. Other than that - aside from some simple safety considerations - go for it. If you want to run a lighter car with no battery, go for it. Amorphous solar cells? Go for it. A different type of battery chemistry with a different solar panel to match? Go for it. Three wheels? Go for it. In short, just go for it.
The pioneering students and teachers who have been working through challenge after challenge this winter to complete the first four prototype Solar Rollers deserve kudos and praise. The first three high school teams come from Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Yampah Mountain High School and Aspen High School. Each school has found their own funding to complete their car. Solar In the Schools has built the fourth prototype car as a demonstrator with help from students in mentoring programs at the Roaring Fork Waldorf School, Aspen Middle School and Carbondale Middle School. You can learn more about their extraordinary efforts as we build our blog.
We would also like to thank Aspen Science Center for their brave early sponsorship and partnership to help get this project started. Their contribution was doubled through energy education matching funds from Garfield Clean Energy.
Another hands-on energy program from:
Matching funds through:
Carbon fiber donated by:
Ultra-efficient motor donation from:
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
Teams will need to overcome a series of challenges, including project funding. Each car can cost up to $1000 in components and materials, without counting the time investment for students, teachers and parents. Design challenges include enlarging the car's footprint to support a welcome mat-sized solar array. Other vital steps include lightening the car and maximizing drivetrain efficiency as well as optimizing the sophisticated electronic system. The delicate nature of solar cells in a racing environment will always be a challenge with these cars, so protecting them needs to be a priority in the building process and in the car's final design.
One of our biggest challenges for the series will be rainy days, just like any outdoor race. Should we run into a heavily overcast day for our demo race on May 18, we will precharge the car's batteries fully before the race starts. Normally, the cars would charge themselves by sitting in the sun for 30 minutes prior to the start. We believe a precharged shady race with limited supplemental solar electricity will still be enough to run a good race at slower speeds - but we're hoping for a bright clear Colorado day.
Solar In the Schools is an established program, started in 2002. We have written many grants (some successful, some not) and worked with more than 15,000 students and teachers in that time. We have never attempted a Kickstarter campaign before. We are being realistic about what we can achieve with this funding. Creating an online resource for the many teachers and students who are interested in this program is clearly our next step, and Kickstarter allows us to raise funding for that effort while growing a larger community of interested participants. With a successful Kickstarter campaign as an indicator of public support we will continue applying for STEM education grants to grow Solar Rollers. We look forward to turning a successful Kickstarter project into a successful ongoing program.
Overall size is limited to 50cm x 80cm. Solar area is limited to 2200 square cm. That translates to about 40 watts of photovoltaics per car - but they are not aimed directly at the sun unless you're racing in the tropics at the right time. They have about 25 watts of available power on a sunny day in Colorado. The cars weigh in at about 1.3-1.5 kg, or 3 pounds.
Was the young woman who explains the motor mount in the video accepted into college for engineering?
She was accepted by Stanford! And Princeton, and Yale, and Columbia, and MIT. No kidding.