As a member of Solar Team Great Britain, I agreed to help undertake a data collection mission, as- being a new team- we had no data from previous challenges.
On the morning of the 20th October 2016, I met up with my teammates Max and Sam at Heathrow Airport to begin a long journey towards a challenging task. We would be driving from North to South Australia on the route of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, collecting data on the way using a self-made rig. The trip would last 10 days in total and the three of us had all met once (and compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist) before our arrival at the airport.
The data rig had been built by some of the STGB engineers in advance of our trip, which meant it came with us in hold and hand luggage. Our anemometer needed to be packed as hand luggage due to its delicate nature and it certainly attracted a lot of interest from the airport security (and was taken into special custody at Singapore for our connecting flight).
The rig was comprised of a number of sensors, which measured the following: Wind speed and direction, ambient temperature, relative humidity, ambient pressure, temperature of sample solar panels, solar irradiance, and vibration. Coupled with a GPS antenna, we had the capability to map every data point collected to where it was sampled and at what time.
It needed to be attached to the roof bars of our hire vehicle upon arrival in Darwin and- much to our frustration at times- removed every evening to be stored safely. It took a full day for the first proper fitting of the rig onto our vehicle and our hostel room rapidly became an engineering workshop.
On Sunday 23rd at 6am, Max, Sam and I were at the start line of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge (1 year too early) with our hire car and rig ready to go. We would drive more than 3000km over the next 5 days. In fact, with a 1 day detour to see Uluru, we ended up travelling around 3500km in total.
There were a few things to take into consideration with our journey:
· We could not drive FAST. Originally we wanted to drive at average race-pace but rapidly decided this was too slow to be safe in our single road car in non-challenge circumstances. We stuck to a speed of around 100-130km/h because the rig attached to the roof would not cope with much more and this allowed for most accurate data collection.
· We needed to collect ALL the solar data. This meant we needed the rig on top of the car from sunrise to sunset. We were up at 5am to get the rig built onto the roof and it could not be removed (or left unattended) until around 7pm.
· Nature can get in the way. You need to dodge lizards, kangaroos and more in order to safely cross the Australian desert!
As team driver, I took the longest driving shifts, which allowed the others more time to make route notes and work on the technical elements of the data collection. I drove between 4-8 hours per day.
And by driving, I mean that I drove down 1 highway in essentially a straight line, for what felt like forever.
The horizon stretched out in front of us endlessly, then behind us endlessly in the rear-view mirror. We passed road trains (trucks with 3-4 carriages) every so often and the odd 4×4. The drivers often waved at us, which was a nice little human interaction when you had seen nothing but the outback for hours.
Nothing prepares you for the Australian outback.
The outback was beautiful.
The outback made us feel incredibly small.
And sometimes we felt like we were on the moon.
We stopped at various truck stops on our journey down the highway to sleep. Sometimes there was no phone signal or WiFi for hundreds of kilometres, which made it difficult to communicate with the world back home.
We were tired from the 5am starts, hungry from the lack of food available on the route and yet, this amazing thing happened. We all remained calm, focused and disciplined. We helped each other when one of us needed a boost. We sang along to cheesy music in the Spotify playlist. And we all shouted with excitement whenever the landscape provided a particularly exciting view (which was quite often).
I was reminded of the importance of teamwork every single day we were in Australia and humbled by my teammates’ attitudes throughout the trip.
Upon arrival in Adelaide on Thursday 28th October, we were very happy to meet with Chris Selwood from the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. We talked with him about our experience, with a fresh focus to cross the finish line.
I can’t wait.
A couple of days later, during an 18 hour layover in Singapore airport, it finally hit me that the three of us had driven across an entire continent; a continent that we had never even visited before. It was a life-changing experience.
As for the data: The trip has enabled the team to better understand the environment in which the Solar Car will be required to operate. For example the anemometer, which used four ultrasonic microphones to measure speed and direction, has provided the team with data to show the gusting we can expect on the open plains and from Road Trains. Our sample panels have provided temperature data which the team can use, along with solar irradiance, to estimate the performance of different solar panels over the course of the challenge.
You can find out more about Solar Team Great Britain (and follow their journey to BWSC 2019) on their website or social media:
Thanks to Maxwell Phillips & Samuel Walder