Solar Decathlon Construction, Day Four

DSC_2990….and while it’s still only the set-up phase, the Miners seem to be outpacing everyone.
Fourteen university teams are busy (re)building their homes for the Solar Decathlon, but as of this morning only eight have passed the foundation set and anchoring inspections. The Miners were one of the first two (if not the first) to pass that first go/no go hurdle. We’re also told the Nest Home was also the first structure to clear inspections on solar mechanical, water storage and service, and water closet isolation.
Today was about adding more “icing” to the cake. The bedroom extension was added by 9:00 a.m. and insulation and interior paneling were in before lunch. Interior trim and HVAC ductwork additions were obvious, but a “mining” crew disappeared underground/under house to hook up electrical and plumbing lines.
At day’s end the two decks/porches were painted while students cleaned the site for a safe start in the morning.

The Solar Decathlon “village” is built on a huge asphalt parking lot, and considering there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky for two days, it gets pretty DSC_3068 (1)hot on the build sites. That’s why construction manager Nolan Severson set aside the hours just before dusk today to install the photovoltaic panels.

That’s quite an impressive start but far from the whole story. One team’s house arrived two days late due to size/weight issues entering California while a second team’s entry struck a bridge not 50 miles from their home campus. Other team members dropped by to share their stories of middle-of-the-night flat tires or vehicle breakdowns, all part of the challenge of getting their designs an hour south of Los Angeles. Stories they will laugh about. Later.

Other observations? Teams are restricted to 1,000 sft of “conditioned” space but that seems to have little bearing on some designs. We haven’t yet toured the other homes, but a few to take up quite a bit of real estate. One beautiful design merges its conditioned space with semi-enclosed decks to expand the concept of “livable” space. Others homes have massive decks, great for living in Southern California but not so practical in Missouri’s spring storms, hot, humid summers or winter ice and sleet.

Building techniques are, uh, varied. One nearby home-building team uses recycled paper/cellulose batt insulation in their domicile but they cut with a high-speed circular saw, turning cellulose into celluDUST that went everywhere. Repeated attempts to sweep up the debris on a breezy day just made matters worse. Too much technology and power thrown at a task better handled with a simple straightedge and a utility knife.

Last note for the day? Some other builders say they’re pleased that they leave the job site as “early” as 11:00 p.m.

The Miners are often wrapped up at 7:00 p.m., 8:00 at the latest…..

Just a Quiet Afternoon in the Country

The City of Rolla lets S&T design teams use the Rolla National Airport tarmac for vehicle testing, and Solar Car, Formula SAE Racing, and now the Formula Electric teams have all taken advantage of the wide-open space.

Originally a WWII Army Air Corps training facility, the airport has a long history of hosting general aviation aircraft, business jets and even warbirds. It’s been a take-off spot for the U.S. Army’s Golden Knight Parachute Team on a local jump.
WWII-era hangars, still in use today, dominate the landscape. A restored Air Force C-47 cargo plane, owned by an S&T alum, sits proudly next to a modern aircraft maintenance facility.
Sunday afternoon the S&T Formula Electric team ‘took the field’ to introduce incoming freshmen to the joys of silent speed and recruit them to the team. The newbies learned the basics of laying out an autocross track lined by hundreds of SUN_0132orange cones, and got excited about being a part of a real racing team (it’s really a design team, but don’t tell them that). Barring any tied-down Cessnas, Piper Cubs or crop dusters, the aircraft parking areas are the ideal place to test, test, and test some more. Just one rule; arriving/departing aircraft have the right of way. No worries, not a plane to be seen.

Which brings us to the questions…

Do you realize a big private jet can be pretty quiet on landing approach? That if your head is under the hood of your race car, or you’re busy analyzing data on your laptop that you might not notice approaching traffic?

Nah, that’d never happen!

What a Thrilling Finish to Formula Sun Grand Prix 2015!

There are no photo finishes in a solar car race. Be it a three-day track race or week-long road tour the winner usually emerges from the pack well before the checkered flag is dropped, so the real scramble is for the runners up. DSC_5761
Iowa State, which held on to the top spot ever since S&T’s spin out on day #1, ran a great car, had a great strategy, and were the best garage mates one could ask for. Congrats to the Cyclones!

By noon today the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th spots were pretty much set. Missouri S&T, in 4th place, checked the numbers and realized that there was no way the 5th-place team could catch them, and no way they could slip past #3. OK, it is what it is.

Suddenly, with less than an hour to go, things changed. Third-ranked Illinois State unexpectedly ran out of power and couldn’t get up the hill to turn #1; they were done. And the Miners looked at the numbers again….

If, just if, Solar Miner VIII could make three or four laps in the remaining 45 minutes they could snare the last podium honor, their first in ten years. They knew it was a long shot as the battery pack was marginal and the array was on its last legs, but they quickly calculated the most efficient speeds that would get them home and sent SMVIII back out on the track.

Hope springs eternal but hope lasted for about six minutes this afternoon, the time it took the Miners to complete a single lap. Solar Miner VIII’s farewell tour ended with the car just drifting into the pits, out of juice. The upset bid was foiled. So goes life.

They could have built a new car for this race but Solar Miner VIII was run for three years for a reason. They cut expenditures, use what they had, and built a financial foundation to “recharge” for the future. These undergrads knew their improvement had to come not on the track, but from organizational excellence, maturity and teamwork.
What the standings don’t show, is that the ’15 Solar Miners have coalesced into a force solar car alumn haven’t seen in nearly a decade. They are young, enthusiastic, and dedicated. They are efficient, work extremely well together, have fun as a group, and are hungry to reach the next level. And now they have experience.

NOW they will design and build the new car. This year they mastered the new battery system. They’ve squirreled away an excellent array rather than waste it on an old chassis, saving $60,000 in the process.

And they have succeeded in building the team, the system and the process that will return Missouri S&T to its rightful place in the pantheon of solar car royalty.

See you next year!


Boring = Good. Exciting = Bad.

…and this afternoon was pretty exciting for the Solar Miners.

We’ve already reported that the S&T Solar Car fought its way to the lead and held it for several hours, and that it took a driver change and tire swap to temporarily push them out of first. No worries there, because Solar Miner VIII was firing on all cells and batteries, and the team still had over two days of racing to go.

On top of that, Austin Holmsley scorched that track with a 4:49 over the 3.418-mile course, the best lap of the day. But maybe “scorched” was a bit prophetic…

Daytime temperatures “only” hit 97 today, but with barely a cloud in the sky that asphalt was burning hot. Current race leader Iowa State reported going through three complete sets of tires, and they believe it was due to overheated rubber compounds.

Shortly before 4:00 this afternoon Donovan Gibson took SMVIII out to finish the last two hours of the day. About 20 miles into his stint behind the wheel, things suddenly got exciting. Very exciting.

Donovan radioed to report a flat tire, but before race central could even ask “which tire?” he let out a fairly strong expletive and then went quiet. Oh, ****!!! was the reaction in the pits. Donovan then called in to say he’d spun out and was trying to assess any damage, while a flustered support crew grabbed tires, wheels, tools and whatever else they could think of and raced from the garage.
They lost another six or seven laps before they could replace the tire and limp the car back to the garage. Which, by the way, was full of Texas-based MSM/UMR/S&T alums who had gathered to cheer the team on.
Instant automotive triage, as over a dozen S&T engineers swarmed the car as ants to honey. Each subgroup sprung into action checking electrical, body, suspension and array damage as if they’d rehearsed the scenario dozens of times. No panic, no yelling, just measured determination and teamwork. While the EEs checked battery temps, MEs found that lateral forces warped all three wheels beyond repair and the brake rotors were badly bent. It took about DSC_5652 (1)30 minutes of well-managed mayhem, with 20-some engineering alums looking over their shoulders, to get the car back on the track for the last hour of the day.

Best assessment of the incident? Scorched tires.

Again, boring = good, excitement = bad.

Way too much excitement for one day.

And the alumni guests couldn’t be more proud!

The Evening Before the Race

Today was pretty laid back. Some students double- and triple-checked systems, a few napped on the garage floor, still others drooled over Nissan’s super car that did two-minute laps on COTA’s nearly four-mile long asphalt.

Preparation is the key to on-track success. Something seemingly mundane as putting anti-seize compound on your car’s rims, so that on-track tire replacement doesn’t require repeated applications of a large hammer.
In the meantime, the Miners’ efforts to figure out the downturn in the array’s power paid off. For days it was assumed that a few delicate cell-to-cell connections had broken, but they didn’t want to rule out anything. Ultimately they discovered variations in the maximum power point trackers (MMPTs), a theory confirmed with discussions with other solar power experts on site. Replacements brought the power output to a respectable level. Respectable for an array that for three years has been manhandled, moved, flexed, touched, twisted, poked and prodded, all the things things that aren’t supposed to happen to solar cells.

So, Why the Orange T-Shirts?

There’s no mistaking the S&T Miners at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). They’ve chosen function over form, safety over civility, practicality over protocol by donning neon orange t-shirts instead of the now-classic S&T green garments.

Safety is a key consideration at all student design events, and solar car racers must be ready at a moment’s notice to attend to their stalled car. The rapid-reaction crew must wear orange safety vests anytime they venture on the track to fix flat tires, reset electrical circuits, or simply push their car up COTA’s massive hill going into turn #1.
No question that visibility on a crowded track is important, but with temperatures nipping at the century mark, heat injury is an even bigger concern; adding a nylon vest to your team uniform/t-shirt is simply asking for heat stress. It’s last year’s experience that taught the team to be smarter/safer, so they chose an, uh, eye-catching hue that has three advantages. First is visibility, as mandated by event rules. Second, cutting down on heat-trapping layers of clothing. Third? If there is an emergency you always know where your safety vest is.

Solar Miners Nab 5th place in Start Line.

Three days in Texas are set aside for “scrutineering:” three days to pass seven critical tests or go home empty-handed. Electrical, mechanical, array, battery protection systems, driver, vehicle body/sizing/egress, and dynamics.

Day one was reserved for five teams, so that event organizers could get things moving in an orderly manner. Day #2 was a free-for-all; first-come, first-served. The Miners made the most of it, clearing every station but braking, and they got through that early the next morning. Scrutineering ends in just a few hours but so far only six of the fifteen teams are in the race.
S&T is spending the afternoon working on the array. This batch of solar cells has some years on it and it’s not working 100% but the students are challenging each diagnosis. Might be a bad solder joint, or a balky power tracker but separate groups are experimenting with every possible solution.

On to Austin!

The Missouri S&T Solar car is about 40 hours away from heading to Austin, Texas and the Circuit of the Americas, the site of the 2015 Formula Sun Grand Prix.
Thanks to the good folks at the Rolla National Airport the Miners did some last-minute skid-pad and slalom testing this morning, and everything worked just fine. This is the last year they’ll race Solar Miner VIII, which as solar cars go is getting long in the tooth at just three years old. SMVIII sports a much more powerful and stable battery pack, which will come in handy because the solar panels ain’t what they used to be.
Donovan Gibson, Conner Kostelac and Austin Holmsley each put SMVIII through some pre-scrutineering dynamic trials so they are confident the car will sail through the parking-lot portion of next week’s race.

DSC_4163Donovan, a former high school track and field athlete, even tried to out run the car. He didn’t.

In Rocket Parlance, it’s Called an “Event.”

Rocket science has its own language. For those raised in the decades of the space race, we had one-, two-, or three-stage rockets. A booster is still a booster, but the second stage is now called a “sustainer.” Whatever.
BoosterfallSUN_8454A rocket flight “event” simply means that the status quo has changed. It’s a way for the P.A. announcer to draw the crowd’s attention to what’s going on in the sky; what to look for.

When the rocket streaks skyward and the booster falls away, that’s an event. Same when a drogue parachute appears. Usually an “event” is a scheduled part of a flight, but sometimes the event, while amazing to watch, is an unhappy situation for the builders.

The Miners’ flight yesterday came off the rail at a different angle than expected. We are not sure if that was an “event” but it was noticed by the HPER team. Hyperion’s next action was to separate the booster and release the sustainer to climb to the missile’s 23,000+ feet apogee.

That event didn’t go quite as planned. The booster separated but its parachute tore loose, drifting on the breeze while the booster tube tumbled straight down. Worse, the sustainer didn’t ignite and it continued just on momentum. Without another event to indicate that the sustainer ‘chute deployed there was no way to see which direction it went. Or where it eventually augured into the ground.

Last night’s search party did find some clues in the form of a few shreds of blue fiberglass, nearly a mile from where the booster, uh, landed. Now that flight operations are over they’re rehydrated and back out wandering the desert for the remainder of Hyperion’s payload. While it’s an unhappy ending there’s still much to be learned. If they can recover the University of Sydney’s on-board “satellite” they’ll be able to retrieve some data about the flight and the G-forces that payloads need to withstand. They also think their vacuum chamber is strong enough to withstand impact and be usable for next year’s flights.

Keep in mind that just as in NASA’s early years, these are experiments and failure is common. Some rockets misfired. More that one came in as ballistic; very fast and very dangerous to those not paying attention. Our friends at Mizzou, we are told, lost a fin on a Mach 2 launch attempt. Their rocket tumbled out of control and tore itself to pieces.

The worst luck struck one team right on the launch rail.Fire in the skySUN_8359 Seems all their rocket motors fired at once, spewing flaming motors and payload components all around the launch towers, setting the weeds on fire. Clean-up operations further delayed the remaining launches, but aside from wounded pride, there were no injuries or other damage.

It’s Late. Missouri S&T’s Two Formula Teams are Bone Tired but Happy.

In S&T’s first Formula Electric event, the Miners didn’t make it on to the track, but they had lots of company. Of the fifteen or so electric vehicles on site only three or four passed tech inspections.

Of that group, only two attempted the endurance race.

Of those two, just one finished the 22km event.

The Electric Racing Team is smiling nonetheless, because they took a remarkable 5th place on the strength of their cost, weight, design, and presentation efforts.

The Miners’ internal combustion team had their 8th place in autocross revised to 6th overall, so they raced with the very best teams at the final event.
FSAE1DSC_3547Caleb Alne scorched the track and set the fastest time of the day. The car was running unbelievably well and he was carving up the track like an experienced surgeon. #81 had the crowd cheering, but when Caleb pulled in to change drivers there was oil all over the engine pan. Officials pulled them from the field, leaving the Miners with the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) that will knock them well down in the final standings.

Just an hour later the gas-powered designers were all upbeat and smiling as they packed up their trailer. They knew these things happen, but now it was time to think about doing better next year. And that’s cause for excitement.