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Developing a Telemetry System for a Solar Car

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"We chose CompactRIO because it combines real-time data acquisition on


customizable input channels and can record and transmit data."

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- Neo Wei Ren, School of Mechanical Engineering, Nanyang Technological University

The Challenge:
Developing a low-power, real-time monitoring system for a solar car traveling 3,000 km in the World Solar Challenge to monitor the Read
health of the vehicle and help optimize our race strategy.
the
Full
The Solution:
Case
Using an NI CompactRIO controller and an 8-slot chassis to monitor the voltage, current, temperature, and speed of the vehicle and
Study
transmitting this information wirelessly using a 2.4 GHz modem to a chase vehicle following the solar car.

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Author(s):
Neo Wei Ren - School of Mechanical Engineering, Nanyang Technological University

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The World Solar Challenge is a biannual competition where universities from around the world design and build fully
solar-powered vehicles that can travel 3,000 km across Australia at average speeds of more than 80 km/h. The aim of this
competition is to promote research for sustainable transportation. Key areas of interest are aerodynamics, solar conversion
ratio, battery technology, low-rolling resistance tires, and electric hub motors. A well-planned race strategy is also pivotal to
whether the solar car can survive the full distance of the journey across Australian terrain.

The Purpose of Telemetry


The World Solar Challenge is different from other solar car competitions because it requires the team to travel 3,000 km from
Darwin to Adelaide, Australia, which means that a problem could arise that determines whether the solar car completes the
journey. Using the CompactRIO configurable chassis and NI LabVIEW software, we developed a telemetry system to monitor,
log, and transmit data reflecting the real-time health of the solar cells and batteries (Figure 1). The real-time data helps the
support team develop an optimized race strategy and reduces troubleshooting time because the monitored data triggers alarms
to prevent problems before they arise. The drivers actions can also be monitored and logged to perform postrace analysis.

Our Focus
Even though the solar car produces mechanical and electrical data for collection and analysis, our primary focus for building our
vehicle was the electronics because they were the determining factors for completing the race. We used the data collected from
the battery and solar cells in the design process to battery size and performance curves. Real-time data collected during road
runs helped us optimize the performance of the vehicle and compare how different the actual specifications of the car were from
the design specifications. Also, our race strategy team used the data to calculate the optimum travel speed with reference to the
weather forecasts. We logged all the data in the CompactRIO built-in memory for postrace analysis to improve future projects.

Using CompactRIO with a Reconfigurable Chassis


We chose CompactRIO because it combines real-time data acquisition on customizable input channels and can record and
transmit data. The NI cRIO-9104 8-slot chassis allows can be customized with the modules that cater to our unique monitoring
needs. With the range of NI modules we could adapt our chassis as the project progressed and we focused on different aspects
of our solar car. The onboard memory and multiple I/O types on the NI cRIO-9014 real-time controller provide flexibility of the
interface and secondary data storage.
Our customized chassis includes an SEA cRIO-GPS+ module to provide real-time vehicle position; an NI 9870 serial interface
module to capture data from our battery monitoring system, which has a RS232 interface; an NI 9401 digital I/O module to
capture vehicle speed from the motor controller terminals and data output; four NI 9219 analog I/O modules for monitoring the
throttle, brakes, currents, and voltages of the solar array; and an NI 9211 thermocouple module for temperature sensing around
the vehicle. We used an NI 9219 universal analog I/O module to monitor multiple data types including voltages, currents,
temperature, and resistance with high accuracy and resolution.

Programming with the LabVIEW FPGA Module


We quickly and easily programmed the system using the LabVIEW FPGA Module. Also, the express VIs provided shortcuts for
users to quickly change the program to suit their needs. In addition, we ran our program at start up of the CompactRIO
controller, which made the whole system wireless, eliminating the need to connect to the system to manually start the program
prior to the race. Our team had limited programming experience, but the intuitive graphical icons and wires that resemble a
flowchart made programming fast and fun for a team of amateurs. With the field-programming gate array (FPGA) programming
mode, we integrated all eight modules, because not all of the modules can be used in CompactRIO Scan Mode. We viewed all
the collected data in real time in the chase car and optimized our race strategy according to a formulated program (Figure 2).\

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Figure 2. Real-Time Data as Seen on Chase Car

Our Application
In the design phase of the project, we used the CompactRIO controller to record the performance of the solar cells to develop
the performance curve of the cells in different weather conditions. We hooked the batteries up to the system to determine their
discharge curves at different temperatures, and monitored the actions of the drivers for each test run so the support team could
determine if they were performing the correct actions.
Because the vehicle is completely solar-powered, we minimized the use of power in our electronics and directed the main bulk
of power to the motor to complete the race. The customized 8-slot chassis captured data such as GPS, battery information,
solar cell condition, motor performance, and driver actions. We recorded all the data in the 2 GB onboard memory in the
cRIO-9014 real-time controller. Simultaneously, we formatted the same data to a text string using LabVIEW VIs and sent it
using a low-power 2.4 GHz radio modem to a chase vehicle behind the solar car (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Block Diagram of Our Telemetry System


This provides ample storage in the real-time controller and the laptop in the chase car. In the chase car, the race strategy team
analyzed the collected data and determined the speed to travel with reference to external factors such as the road, driver, and
weather conditions.
After each road test, we analyzed the data and fine tuned the mechanical components of the solar car such as adjusting the
wheel chamber, steering sensitivity, suspension, and tire pressure to improve the performance of the vehicle. With LabVIEW,
we simulated the different weather conditions we may encounter in Australia so we could better gauge the level of power our
solar array could provide. Also, we will conduct postrace analysis using the recorded data to make improvements to future solar
cars.

Conclusion
Because this project was the first time we used a real-time monitoring system, we were initially unsure of what our main focus
would be because there are many areas in a solar car that we can acquire data from. As the project progressed, we used
CompactRIO for the race and design phase of the project to chart the battery discharge rates at various temperatures and to
determine the performance of our homemade solar array. It benefited our team in all phases of our project from design to the
actual race to postrace analysis. We successfully used CompactRIO to develop a monitoring system for our solar-powered
vehicle, and plan to reuse the same chassis and controller as we carry out more solar projects in the future.
Author Information:
Neo Wei Ren
School of Mechanical Engineering, Nanyang Technological University

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Figure 1. Using CompactRIO during Testing of Our Solar Vehicle


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