Star Track: A Lesson in Positional Astronomy With Lasers

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

[gocivici] threatened us with a tutorial on positional astronomy when we started reading his tutorial on a Arduino Powered Star Pointer and he delivered. We’d pick him to help us take the One Ring to Mordor; we’d never get lost and his threat-delivery-rate makes him less likely to pull a Boromir.

As we mentioned he starts off with a really succinct and well written tutorial on celestial coordinates that antiquity would have killed to have. If we were writing a bit of code to do our own positional astronomy system, this is the tab we’d have open. Incidentally, that’s exactly what he encourages those who have followed the tutorial to do.

The star pointer itself is a high powered green laser pointer (battery powered), 3D printed parts, and an amalgam of fourteen dollars of Chinese tech cruft. The project uses two Arduino clones to process serial commands and manage two 28byj-48 stepper motors. The 2nd Arduino clone was purely to supplement the digital pins of the first; we paused a bit at that, but then we realized that import arduinos have gotten so cheap they probably are more affordable than an I2C breakout board or stepper driver these days. The body was designed with a mixture of Tinkercad and something we’d not heard of, OpenJsCAD.

Once it’s all assembled and tested the only thing left to do is go outside with your contraption. After making sure that you’ve followed all the local regulations for not pointing lasers at airplanes, point the laser at the north star. After that you can plug in any star coordinate and the laser will swing towards it and track its location in the sky. Pretty cool.

Filed under: Arduino Hacks, cnc hacks, news, solar hacks

Dual Axis Solar Tracker with Online Energy Monitor

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

[Bruce Helsen] built this dual axis solar tracker as one of his final projects for school.

As can be experimentally verified in a very short timeframe, the sun moves across the sky. This is a particularly troublesome behavior for solar panels, which work best when the sun shines directly on them. Engineers soon realized that abstracting the sun away only works in physics class, and moved to the second best idea of tracking sun by moving the panel. Surprisingly, for larger installations the cost of adding tracking (and its maintenance) isn’t worth the gains, but for smaller, and especially urban, installations like [Bruce]’s it can still help.

[Bruce]’s build can be entirely sourced from eBay. The light direction is sensed via a very clever homemade directional light sensor. A 3D printer extruded cross profile sits inside an industrial lamp housing. The assembly divides the sky into four quadrants with a light-dependent resistor for each. By measuring the differences, the panel can point in the optimal direction.

The panel’s two axis are controlled with two cheap linear actuators. The brains are an Arduino glued to a large amount of solar support electronics and the online energy monitor component is covered by an ESP8266.

The construction works quite well. If you’d like to build one yourself the entire BOM, drawings, and code are provided on the instructables page.


Filed under: Arduino Hacks, solar hacks

Perovskite Solar: Coming Soon?

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

Making solar cells out of silicon is difficult. There’s plenty of manufacturing steps, many of them at very high temperatures, and you need a high vacuum and a clean room. However, perovskite solar cells–cells made with hybrid organic-inorganic materials in a perovskite crystal structure–are relatively easy to make using wet chemistry involving solvents or vapor deposition.

In theory, silicon solar cells could be 30% efficient, but in reality, 25% seems to be a practical limit with commercial cells typically topping out at 20%. Perovskite cells are nearly that high now, and could be higher by stacking thin layers, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light.

A recent development at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory may lead to even more efficient perovskite cells. Researchers found that certain crystal structures had a much higher efficiency than other structures. The problem now is figuring out how to produce the crystals to increase the prevalence of that structure.

That’s not the only problem, though. Perovskite cells degrade quickly. The materials used tend to be water soluble, and the cell breaks down in most environments. There has been work to make longer lasting cells. The current record for efficiency in a single-junction perovskite cell is 22.1%.

Researchers hope to solve the stability problem and produce highly efficient solar films using this technology. They envision light, transparent, and cheap solar cells that would be as easy to apply as wallpaper, covering any surface that has sun exposure.

If you want to try your hand at building your own perovskite cells, you might enjoy the videos below. Notice you can actually make the cells. Usually, when we see a DIY solar project, it starts with conventional solar panels. Unless, of course, it doesn’t create electricity.

Filed under: solar hacks

Open Source Solar

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

What’s the size of a standard euro-palette, goes together in 15 minutes, and can charge 120 mobile phones at one time? At least one correct answer is Sunzilla, the open source solar power generator. The device does use some proprietary components, but the entire design is open source. It contains solar panels, of course, as well as storage capacity and an inverter.

You can see a video about the project below. The design is modular so you can pick and choose what you want. It also is portable, stackable, and easy to transport. The team claims they generate 900W of solar power and can store 4 kWh. Because of the storage device, the peak power out is 1600W and the output is 230V 50Hz AC.

The storage component is the heaviest part, of course. The entire thing weighs under 200 pounds without batteries. With them, the weight leaps to about 550 pounds.

Although the focus is on impoverished places, it would be easy to imagine a ham radio club using something like this for Field Day operations or working in disaster areas. Outdoor festivals could use something like this, too.

We have covered many solar power builds, but this one is particularly complete and modular. Then again, if all you want to do is heat your redneck hot tub, Sunzilla might be overkill.

Filed under: solar hacks

A Toasty Warm Pool Without The Propane Bills

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

So, you’ve got the deck, you’ve got the pool and the lounger, you’ve got the summer, and you’ve got the piña colada. All set, you might say.

Sounds idilyic, but sadly we aren’t all lucky enough to live in a tropical climate. So while sipping the cocktail on the lounger you’d be warm enough the chances are that taking a dip would leave you feeling as though you’d just jumped into the Arctic Ocean. Not a problem, just turn on the pool heater. At this point you discover just how much it costs to heat a large body of water kept outdoors and open to the atmosphere. You become the kind of valued customer your liquid propane dealer sends a Christmas card to, you are reduced to living on a diet of budget ramen, and your children wear shoes with holes in them.

[ClanMan] had almost the problems outlined above, at least as far as the uncomfortable propane bills. His solution was a surprisingly simple one, he built himself a solar water heater from inexpensive PVC pipe.

It might not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated, but the key to making an efficient solar collector from such a basic material lies in careful selection of the bores of the various sections of pipe being used. The hot water feed from the propane heater had quite a narrow bore with a fast flow rate, but because [ClanMan] needed his water to linger in the collector and pick up as much solar heat as possible, he chose a much wider bore to feed it to ensure a much slower flow. The collector itself was made from multiple parallel lengths of much narrower pipe, to preserve the slow net flow across their combined cross-section while ensuring the maximum surface area contact between hot pipe and water.

The resulting heat helped take the temperature of his pool from 75 to 80 Farenheit. This may not sound like much, but was enough to make a noticeable difference.

We’ve featured quite a few solar heat projects before here at Hackaday. Best title has to go to the Hippie-Redneck Solar-Heated Kiddo Swimmin’ Pool And Hot Tub, but we’ve also featured a very tidy coiled solar collector. All this swimming is hungry work though, so how about a solar cooker made from a satellite dish?

Filed under: solar hacks

OzQube-1: A Tiny Australian Satellite

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

Over the last couple of decades we have become used to the possibility of launching a satellite into orbit no longer being the exclusive preserve of superpowers. Since the first CubeSats were launched over a decade ago a myriad others have followed, and scarcely a week passes without news of another interesting project in this area.

OzQube-1 is just such a satellite, designed for imaging of the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s the brainchild of Australian [Stuart McAndrew]. He’s posted significant details of its design: it’s a PocketQube, at 50mm cubed, an eighth the volume of a CubeSat, and its main instrument is a 2 megapixel camera with a 25mm lens. Images will be transmitted to earth as slow-scan digital video via the 433MHz amateur band, the dipole antenna being made from a springy tape measure which will unfurl upon launch. Attitude control is passive, coming from a magnet aligned to ensure the camera will be pointing Earthwards as it passes over the Southern Hemisphere. The project has a little way to go yet, but working prototypes have been completed and it has a Gofundme campaign under way to help raise the money for a launch.

There are plenty of Cubesat and other small satellite builds to be found on the web, here at Hackaday we’ve covered a significant number of them. Many of them are the fruits of well-funded university departments or other entities with deep pockets, but this one comes from a lone builder from Western Australia. We like that, and we wish OzQube-1 every success!

Filed under: radio hacks, solar hacks

Networked Solar Birdhouses Deep in the Woods

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

[Oitzu] in Germany wrote in to let us know about a series of short but very informative blog posts in which he describes building a series of solar-powered, networked birdhouses with the purpose of spying on the life that goes on within them. He made just one at first, then expanded to a small network of them. They work wonderfully, and [Oitzu]’s documentation will be a big help to anyone looking to implement any of the same elements – which include a Raspberry Pi in one unit as a main gateway, multiple remote units in other birdhouses taking pictures and sending those to the Pi over an nRF24L01+ based radio network, and having the Pi manage uploading those images using access to the mobile network. All with solar power.

Original nesting box with pi noir cameraOriginal Raspberry Pi based unit with Pi Noir camera

Hardware that needs to keep itself running in the middle of the woods has a different set of problems to solve than hardware that hangs out no further away than your back yard. Happily, [Oitzu] walks us through the whole process. In Part 1 he outlines a plan for multiple networked birdhouses, each able to report on their inhabitants but without needing a Raspberry Pi in each one. Part 2 describes the camera system. Part 3 details the communications between the units, and the overall hardware design. Part 4 covers the PCB (his first one!) and enclosures, and finally Part 5 is all about the results. The boxes have been happily running in the middle of the forest with very few problems. The Raspberry Pi (equipped with a UMTS stick – an economical mobile network data gateway) caches images from the remotes, and uploads them whenever it can obtain a mobile signal – which it can usually do fairly promptly unless there is bad weather.

The birdhouses are currently empty, so there is nothing to do but wait for now. The final blog post has links to the image galleries of each birdhouse for when they become occupied. It’s hoped that Boreal Owls will make an appearance.

Supplying power to hardware that lives headless in the middle of the woods is a problem, and [Oitzu] took an approach similar to this solar-powered, tweeting bird feeder: that is to say, a large solar panel and a hefty rechargeable battery. But with some of the recent projects like this battery backup and power management solution for the Raspberry Pi making progress, maybe options for easier and better control over headless hardware in the woods will grow.

Filed under: solar hacks, wireless hacks

Building a Sturdy Remote Control Mailbox

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

This DIY mailbox pretty much has it all. Not only is it waterproof and secure, it’s beautifully built and unlikely to arouse the suspicion of or induce fear in the mailman.

It’s made of 2mm thick sheet metal and features accents made of merri, a rather nice blood wood native to Western Australia. [George] of Make It Extreme built this mailbox primarily for remote control access, the idea being that each of his family members would have a key fob remote to open it. There’s an input panel under the lid in case someone loses or forgets their remote.

The setup is simple. That 12V solar panel under the address number is connected to a solar charge controller and charges a small battery. Pushing the A button on the key fob remote triggers the latch to slide over, unlocking the door. A push of the B button turns on an interior light for late-night mail collecting. The tube on the side is for leaflets and other postal miscellany. Now, the coolest feature: when mail passes through the slot, it lets [George] know by calling his cell phone. Check out the build/demo video after the break.

We’ve featured all kinds of mailboxen over the years. This wifi-enabled ‘box uses an Amazon Dash button and a Pi to play the AOL notification on the owner’s phone. The flag on this adorable mini mailbox goes up when there’s mail in the real one outside.

Thanks for the tip, [Michalis]!

Filed under: lifehacks, solar hacks

Solar FPV Plane Flies Forever

Hackaday Solar Hacks -

We love solar power. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but it’s relatively lightweight and involves fragile high technology. Just the sort of thing that we’d want to strap onto the wings of a large model aircraft.

Solar power on a remote-controlled plane would get you unlimited cruising range. Now, a normal land-and-swap-battery process might be good enough for some people, but judging from [Prometreus]’s YouTube channel, he’s a fan of long flights over the Alps, and of pushing long-distance FPV links to the breaking point. For him and his friends, the battery power is definitely the limiting factor in how far / long he can fly.


All of the information we have is in the video, but that’s plenty. [Prometreus] didn’t bother with maximum-power-point tracking, but instead wired up his solar cells to work just about right for the voltage of his batteries and the level of sun that he’s seeing. So it won’t work nearly as well on cloudy days. (Check out this MPPT build that was submitted for the Hackaday Prize.)

He could switch the solar cells in an out remotely, and it’s pretty gratifying to see the consumed current in the battery go down below zero. In the end, he lands with a full battery. How cool is that?

Filed under: solar hacks
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