Energy: Solar Rover - Hardware

So far, for our solar assignment, James, Brent and I have focused on getting the basic functionality of our hardware down. We have been building a solar (plant) rover, a friendly light-seeking bot that tries to use its energy particularly judiciously.

We knew we wanted to give it the ability to control motors and a few light sensors, at the least. To that end, we began measure the current draw from different motors we had on hand. We had a plain DC motor and a geared motor to work with. We found that our plain DC motor draw 400 mA at 3V, but the geared DC motor performed better in both loaded and unloaded conditions:

  • 0.06 mA, unloaded geared-DC motor @ 3V
  • 90 mA, unloaded geared-DC motor @ 6V
  • 300 mA, fully loaded geared-DC motor @ 3.6V

Because we intended to use two such wheels in our project, essentially our current needs would be 600 mA, which with a fully charged 500 mAh batter, would last us a bit less than an hour.

We did have a few tricks up our sleeves to make our rover more efficient.

In our initial designs, we imagined our solar plant rover as traveling across the floor of a sunny room throughout the day, seeking “lighter” ground from time to time. In order to accomplish this, we don’t really need the rover to be constantly active, but rather, adjust to new lighting conditions from time to time.

James and I had both been in Eric Rosenthal’s Basic Analog Circuits and had used a 555 timer chip in one of the labs – it seemed as though it would be a good fit for our needs (and possibly a more interesting alternative to existing deep sleep libraries).

After researching and testing a few different 555 configurations, we settled on an astable multivibrator mode (using this site as a key resource: link). We intended to use the timer chip to power on our arduino + sensor + actuator setup for about 3 mins and then power off for an hour or more.

We used the RC Time Constant calculate our capacitor and resistor needs. Our calculations were a bit different from the usual equation, because we were using a set of diodes to isolate the effect of one of the resistors, so that we could have a longer off-period in our duty cycle without affecting our 3 minute mark.

For our current timing circuit, we are using resistors that are nominally marked as 500k and 20k and see a 1.5 hour off period and a 3 minute on period.

We tested the current draw of our whole system and found that it draw about 2 mA in the off state and 300-350 mA when the motors were at work, loaded.

In order to run these measurements, we came across a set of interesting discoveries.

  1. The human body is about 200-300k ohms. More accurately, my human body. I had taken my multimeter to our bins of resistors in the shop to ensure I was getting the values I thought I was (the bins are a mess), and it seemed that all of the higher-value resistors were reading about 300k ohms. I had become the path of least resistance! Once I had James hold the other end of the resistor to the multimeter, this problem was resolved.

  2. The 555 timer, in order to output steady amperage seems to require resistors of a high-enough value. In order to measure the current draw of our system, we had switched out our timing resistors to make our duty cycle shorter. Unfortunately, at lower resistor values (< 500 ohms on one, about 3.3k ohms on the other), the Arduino’s power LED would flicker and show evidence of less than steady amperage. Once we switched the 10k resistors, the problem seemed to resolve.

This post has glazed over the parts that I did not focus on. Brent has worked to engineer the robot behavior by coding its response to different lighting conditions. We are using 4 LDRs, placed in cardinal directions, and have applied an Kalman filter (James’s suggestion!) to smooth the data we receive from their associated analogRead pins on our Arduino. Brent has been working with the robot to make it turn in the direction of the most well-lit LDR.

Next, we have to finalize the form of our rover. It’s current form is not particularly friendly to the transport of plants, so a bit of fabrication is in order.