Design and Construction of an Innovative Solar Aircraft



Solar-powered aircraft have been a long-held dream in aviation - the ability to fly forever if enough energy can be converted and stored in batteries... zero-emission near-silent flight for a variety of different applications (if you've looked around our site, you could probably predict we're interested in monitoring wildlife populations, tracking and deterring poachers or illegal fishing, providing real-time vision and data from disaster zones, and other missions that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside). Unfortunately, while the cost of solar has come down dramatically in recent years, efficiency is still on a slow climb; this means solar aircraft need huge wings for a huge amount of solar panels, which leads to huge  structural problems that require a huge effort to design for.

PROJECT MOBIUS is pursuing a novel wing configuration that will help alleviate the kinds of structural issues that have plagued pioneers like NASA/Aerovironment's Helios, Facebook's Aquila, and many others - it should also lead to more efficient flight for a small-ish autonomous system. However, we're not going to sit around for years perfecting our designs on paper. We're going flying.



PROJECT MOBIUS comprises students designing and building a solar aircraft through aggressive prototyping (startup style). By iterating the manufacturing stages quickly without worrying about aircraft performance in the early stages, they have been able to rapidly hack a Radian XL glider to bits, build a new strong ultra-light wing that will take high-efficiency monocrystalline silicon solar cells, develop a power management system, and implement semi-autonomous control and telemetry. And crash a few times because these things happen.

Learning as quickly as possible how to build something out enough to get data and experience on either the process or the result has allowed the team to... have fun. More importantly, it means when they attempt to shift away from a basic glider design to a complex configuration nobody's tried before, they'll have a much better chance of getting it right. 

In 2018 the project is supported by a Cal Poly Baker and Koob Endowment Grant for Student Success, and the project is taking advantage of a close relationship with Cal Poly PROVE Lab to be able to maximize resources. The images you see below are from various stages of testing and prototyping the earliest stages of the project in 2018:

MkI - hacked radian with added telemetry and borrowed solar cells

MkII - all-new wing that can have solar properly integrated, limited autonomous capability

MkIII - optimized wing and bespoke fuselage, with ability to loiter autonomously and achieve long duration (>4hrs) flight.

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