Team Ukzn – Hulamin on day three

A wild guess, if you’re a sports fan you’re likely bubbling enthusiastic about your favorite football team’s most recent exploits. I know, it’s that time of year, and pretty much anyone you might meet has a favorite team and color they’re rooting for. Go Bears! Go Broncos! Go, go, go!

Well, not me. It’s October of an odd-numbered year, which means one thing to me. The World Solar Challenge is keeping me up late at night so I can catch the latests news from Down Under.

Team Kogakuin HV – OWL

Right now teams of college students are battling black flies, heat, and intermittent cloud cover as they race across a couple thousand kilometers of Austrailian outback. My favorites tend to come from the Cruiser class of vehicles, mostly because they’re demonstrating that long-distance (potentially self-sustained) solar travel is not only possible but happening at a race pace. My imagination is turning as fast as a full set of Bridgestone Ecopia tires and I wonder what might happen if hybrid human powered assist (like you might find in a Twike) could be added to these sorts of vehicles.

“Over the river and through the woods,” is this an element of our shared future?


Perlan 2 soaring to the edge of the atmosphere

In my book The Big Red Buckle, I image an endurance race of people soaring mountain waves at the edge of the Martian atmosphere. Humanity seems infinitely adaptable and well beyond our petty and violent squabbles sports are wonderful aspirational motivation. The thing is people don’t fight one another if there is a framework in place for them to constructively compete with one another.

Whether it’s pushing a body as fast as possible along the edge of aerodynamic science, figuring out how to travel across Austrailia on a tank of sunshine, or soaring a sailplane to the edge of space on a poorly understood atmospheric phenomenon I see these endeavours as critical elements in the continuing development of our collective capability. More needs to be done here, and more should be written about these sorts of ideas.

Today’s inspiration is the Perlan Project, which intends to soar a sailplane to 90,000 km above the surface of the Earth on a mountain wave.

Carrera Solar Atacama?

Solar Team Eindhoven

Yes please! Ok, I do have a problem. That’s the first step, admit you have problem, then you can start looking for a cure? My problem is that if I were to start all over again, get an opportunity to re-live my life, I would make some very different choices.

To start with I would undoubtably make it my business to stick my nose into anything involving solar racing. At the tender age of seventeen, had I known what might be waiting for me if I had gone to school and become a vehicle engineer specializing in solar propulsion I’m certain I would be living a much different life today. I feel I had a failure of imagination when I was a kid, I was bought and sold on the idea that I wanted to fly fighter aircraft. Guess Top Gun and The Last Starfighter ceased my attention more completely than I’d like to admit.

This summer I watched competitors from the World Solar Challenge fly across the Australian desert between Darwin and Adelaide. The whole time I was imagined a single stage solar race where the competitors did not have long lines of support vehicles trailing off behind them. Endurance style for thousands of kilometers through challenging terrain.

This afternoon, while browsing a feed about the American Solar Challenge (a staged, track race), I noticed a link to the Carrera Solar Atacama later this year in November. Clicking through I encountered their vehicle class listing and … joy! … look at this.

This class, unique in the world of solar racing, comprehends hybrid EVs which are propelled both by solar energy and human traction. It aims to develop low cost environmentally friendly vehicles, extending in this way the entry to Carrera Solar Atacama for teams with limited financing possibilities.

Imagine racing alone, thousands of kilometers, up and down mountain ranges, across dry deserts, through arching halls of trees, ocean to ocean. I love the older tech, slower teams and classes because they require the racer to think on his feet. Use his knowledge and a little forethought to stay in the race. Now, for Atacama, add his or her legs to the mix. So freaking awesome!

The Future of Overland Travel

There have been a couple of good sci-fi stories that have come out in the last few years which at least touch on the idea of long distance, self-supported overland travel. For instance, in Tobias Buckell’s 2008 contribution to the collective effort META-tropolis near the end of Stochasti-city his hero leaves the city of Detroit headed west in a velomobile-like device as he searches for the woman who he believes is responsible for a positive transformation.

I love this idea, that humanity in a post-fossil fuel society, does not become insular and prosaic, stuck in place without the potential for travel. We have, at a glance, many technologies that earlier versions of mankind lacked completely in addition to the productive employment of our own two feet.

Today I found an example of what future overland travel might look like. Its not big and spacious, but its capable, independent, and given the right amount of care could take its crew a very long way.

A team of 22 students at the Eindhoven University of Technology have built a sedan (room for four passengers and a trunk) which is completely solar powered. They’re entering it in the World Solar Challenge as one of 10 or so entries in the new Michelin Cruiser Class.

I have, for years now, dreamt of planning some sort of long distance tour in nothing more audacious than a Twike. Owners of these human-electric hybrids have been touring parts of Europe for years. But this vehicle has a limited range and requires dedicated charging stations even with the addition of a pair of generator cranks for the pilot and navigator to turn along the way.

The examples of vehicles in the Michelin Cruiser Class may be template for those interested in this sort of feat to base future platforms and imaginary descriptions. Pretty amazing engineering, attention will need to be focused on light-weight solutions to make truly independent versions of this work over long distances.