Canadians use desktops, laptop to develop solar car

Queen’s University’s solar-powered vehicle program just got a great boost in its quest to craft the best solar vehicle in the world, thanks to Lenovo’s donation of some high-end hardware.

Queen’s has a long-standing stake in the world of solar-powered vehicle racing, having hosted a team for the last two decades. The university’s Solar Vehicle Team, led by senior engineering student Jonathan Mash, is in the process of putting the finishing touches on Aurum, the university’s eleventh solar vehicle. Come autumn, the eight-man team will maneuver the vehicle 3,000 km down the length of Australia, from Darwin to Adelaide, in the World Solar Challenge.

Competing as they are against near 50 other teams from almost two-dozen countries, Lenovo’s just-announced two-year sponsorship of the team comes just in time, and is outfitting the team with a Lenovo ThinkPad R60 and a pair of ThinkCentre desktops.

The team is comprised of 50 undergrads from all disciplines who volunteer their time during the schoolyear, while the summer is staffed by a dozen full-time, paid students. According to Mash, they had been getting along with mediocre technology. “Before we got the Lenovo stuff, we’d been running Windows 95 on an old Compaq-style machine. The software we run is pretty heavy-duty stuff. We’d literally turn it on one day, load in some data, and then come back in a couple of days, and it might be done,” he said. “Now, with the new stuff, you can come back and hour later and it’s done.”

This was a problem for a team who created a lot of proprietary software, dealt with heavy detail-rich data loads (including Ansys’ Fluent aerodynamics software), and even made their own hardware. “Every year, everything on the car is student-designed, from the electrical to the shape to the mechanics,” said Mash. (The University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo, two of the 10 or so active solar vehicle teams in the country, are also participating in the Challenge.)

The ThinkCentre A60 (including a 17-inch monitor) will aid in designing circuit boards for the vehicle’s on-board telemetry system. Said Mash: “The telemetry system tracks battery, performance, solar collection — solar vehicles are really finicky, so you need really good strategy to win the race, with detailed and fast information. You can’t plug it into the wall when you run out of batteries — the only source of power is the sun, and that’s only out during certain times.”

The system, according to Mash, wirelessly sends data to the vehicle that trails Aurum, where team members utilize on the ThinkPad their in-house software that, said Mash, “can take in data, and can predict how fast you could drive and things like that, depending on the conditions.” While the program is proprietary, Mash said that he’d be happy to share it with the other teams. “Well,” he said, “At least the Canadian ones!”

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