Saturday, September 17, 2022

Solar powered planes.

 In 2004 I built a solar powered RC plane.
You can see pictures and read about it sees some pictures and relive its sad end here: Old web page from 2004

I'm going to try this project again.

In the 18 years since this flew a number of things have improved:

  • Microscopic autopilots for RC planes are COTS. (mRo <5gm  etc)  I  no longer have to build my own.
  • Long range RC control and telemetry links are COTS (Crossfire, ELRS, Dragonlink)
    I no longer have to build my own.
  • The solar cells have improved. The new SunPower C60 cells are 6.5 gm 3.5W 22% efficient and Flexible. The A-300 cells I used 18 yrs ago were:12 gm, 3W 20% efficient, and pretty rigid.

Old cell left, new cell right

The new cells are pretty flexible.

On the old plane I had 3 rows of solar cells on each wing. Each row was wired in series to make about 6.5 volts. I then built a 6 channel MPPT (see: wiki MPPT)

The schematic for one channel of my MPPT:

The full 6 channel unit:

This MPPT is setup as a boost converter so the system bus or battery voltage must be above the voltage of the solar string. It also allows solar strings of varying size to feed a common bus. IE I can have a 4 cell panel on the tail, a 4 cell panel on the wing tips and a 2x 10 cell panels on each main wing.

There are lots and lots of interesting tradeoffs in this space.
At minimum power the wing drag is primarily induced drag. One reduces induced drag by making the wing have a very high aspect ratio and an  elliptical lift distribution.

If you want the absolute minimum power you want a  really high lift airfoil like:

Selig S1210

Yet look how thin the trailing edge is and how hard that would be to build lightly.
Heavily under cambered airfoils also have really high pitching moments.
(Meaning the airfoil wants to pitch forward and this must be resisted.)
Put this airfoil on a really long high aspect ratio wing and its not unheard of for the wing tip to fail in a downward direction... (The airfoil tip tries to twist forward twisting the wing, enough that the wing tip on light structure is now lifting down and bad things ensue.)

One could choose an airfoil designed for flying wings (now or very low pitching moment) like 

Much easier to build a very light structure with this trailing edge and the torsional rigidity of the wing will matter a lot less.

The minimum power airfoil (assuming an infinite wing) is  where Cl^3/2/Cd is maximum.
For the  1210 :  109 For the MH60 its : 68....

So the minimum sink is roughly proportional  to weight ^ 1/2  Min power is thus weight ^(3/2)
So for a 1000gm airplane you could add a couple hundred extra grams and be even.

So if one wanted to fly over night.... using the potential energy of the aircraft as a battery  sink rate is only effected by wt ^1/2 where if you wanted to fly all night  at constant altitude via battery then assuming the battery is 30 to 50%  of the mass (reasonable assumption) then each extra gram of structure is bad by an additional requirement for more battery.

Like I said a really complex trade space...

Looking at the professional Aerospace for hints/clues is not really helpful...
Helios was a flying wing, that failed due to complex aerodynamic, structural, and turbulence interactions. See Report here

The Solar impulse and Airbus Zypher both chose a more traditional aircraft platform.


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Aircraft driven by solar energy are technically feasible, but they currently lack the range to be very practical. The same might have been stated about battery-powered vehicles ten years ago. Let's thus watch what happens to solar-powered aircraft for next ten years or so.

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