Robotics Technology
Pitches with Prototypes: Solar Tracker

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Next in our run-up coverage of MAKE’s 2013 Hardware Innovation Workshop is Jay Doscher’s solar tracking robot. His project was one of many submitted to the pitches with prototypes contest. To get the most efficient use of solar electric energy, you must keep your solar panel pointed at the sun. Manually moving the solar panel is impractical. An automated solution may be beyond the reach of many green energy enthusiasts or anyone who just wants to keep the lights on without developing robotics expertise.

Hoping to fill that need Jay’s GPS-steered solution is portable and could be used for emergencies, camping, or any time off-grid power is needed.

Solar Tracking Robot

A 50 Watt solar panel mounted statically in southern California might provide about 28 Watts of usable output. With tracking you may get closer to 40 Watts. Jay says that for most of North America, you can gain about 30 percent efficiency by keeping your solar panel pointed at the sun. People living in high latitude areas like Alaska could possibly see 80 to 90 percent gains over the course of a year.

Jay and other inventors, artists and entrepreneurs will be presenting their ideas at MAKE’s Hardware Innovation Workshop this May 14th and 15th. They submitted proposals of their prototypes for the chance to pitch to an audience of industry experts. Entrants hope to get feedback on their product’s marketability, producibility, and the chance to win a slot at the Maker Faire Innovation Stage the following weekend to show their stuff to a wider audience.

Although Jay says his hardware and software design is open source, not everyone wants to do it themselves. With natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy in recent memory, could this idea be commercially viable? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Are you an potential investor or do you have your own idea you want to bring to market? Register to attend the Hardware Innovation Workshop and see what other innovators and successful entrepreneurs have to share.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKYkDKV9e0?rel=0&w=640&h=360

22 thoughts on “Pitches with Prototypes: Solar Tracker

    1. Consider that by including GPS, the tracker can determine its location and time of day and then look up the correct positioning. It also makes the unit very easily portable, so you don’t have to reprogram it if you change locations.
      Also consider that the cost of GPS hardware has come down a lot.

  1. WoW! That would be great for camping! I think the tripod is a little excessive. Just a lazy Susan with the linear actuator for tilting would be good enough. I agree that the GPS is essential, I wouldn’t want to enter in location data every time I set it up and I love that figures this out by its self. Also, since the position can be updated quickly, this would work for tracking the sun on a moving platform like a boat or automobile or plane!

  2. Thanks for the comments! There are others that use incident (measured) light, but they are much smaller than this one. The “Captain Sundial” ;) it’s not pointing right at the sun because of something called magnetic declination- the panel uses magnetic north right now and can’t calculate magnetic declination by coordinates- yet :)

  3. What are the power requirements for the system? Is there a net positive gain? If not in the prototype, how big would it have to scale to be net positive? Can it be made robust at that scale?

    This is a cool Maker project no matter what. I’m just curious about the practicality side since the Innovation Workshop says it is about pitching Maker based business proposals.

  4. I agree with Captain Sundial and the others. If you want to point at the Sun, point at the Sun. It’s a great big ball of fire sitting in the sky, you can’t miss it.

    That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a cool hack.

  5. Jay, consider using a mag dec matrix to provide the correction. you can used data from the gov to create a 6deg grid and interpolate within the grid for any correction needed. It is simple and good for a couple of years before it needs updating as a couple of degrees of erroris not significant to power output.

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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