Dit werkstuk heeft in juni 2010 de KNAW Onderwijsprijs voor het beste Nederlandse N&T-profielwerkstuk gewonnen. Het origineel vind je hier.
Main goal of this project was to make calculations and respective designs to create an electric airplane prototype, capable of powering its flight either entirely or partially using solar energy. This project intended to stimulate research on renewable energy sources for aviation. In future solar powered airplanes could be used for different types of aerial monitoring and unmanned flights.
First, research was done to investigate properties and requirements of the plane. Then, through a number of sequential steps and with consideration of substantial formulas, the aircraft’s design was proposed. This included a study on materials, equipment and feasibility. Finding a balance between mass, power, force, strength and costs proved to be particularly difficult. Eventually predictions showed a 50% profit due to the installation of solar cells. The aircraft’s mass had to be 500 grams at the most, while costs were aimed to be as low as €325.
After creating a list of materials and stipulating a series of successive tests, construction itself started. Above all, meeting the aircraft’s target mass, as well as constructing a meticulously balanced aircraft appeared to be most difficult. Weight needed to be saved on nearly any element. We replaced the battery, rearranged solar cells and adjusted controls. Though setbacks occurred frequently, we eventually met our goals with the aircraft completed whilst weighing in at 487 grams.
Testing commenced with verifying the wings’ actual lift capacities. Results were satisfying. In addition, further testing on drag and propulsion was gratifying as well. Finally, the aircraft truly took to the skies, but sadly crashed due to flaws in steering. Testing on solar cells however, was disappointing. Instead of the expected 50 %, we only managed to achieve 10 % profit. In addition, one can pose the question if leaving out the solar cells entirely would have meant saving such considerable weight, that there would have been more profit after all. Final costs of the project were €515.
Ultimately we can conclude purely solar powered flight is impossible, at least with the materials available and taking Dutch climate into account. Further developments in solar technology might create possibilities for solar planes in future. For now, in order to install solar cells, too many aspects of the plane are sacrificed to save weight. This for example resulted in a frame far too fragile.
Still, it should be noted that the plane we manufactured was a prototype only. Many adjustments can be made. During the project we have seen that there is quite some room for improvement. That is obvious, as this was the very first airplane we ever build. We gathered enormous amounts of knowledge and we hope that in future this knowledge will be used to continue working on solar powered planes. For if development continues, solar powered aircraft might truly be used in future. Bear in mind: Future starts now.
As we both enjoy aviation and are considering a study involving the aircraft industry, it had soon become clear we wanted to do our research project about a topic related to flying. Though aviation is a complex part of technology, we thought our expertise on physics and our passion for flying would guide us through this project. Our first concern was finding a topic both interesting, challenging and future-proof. Due to current turbulence in aviation we decided on the following:
The desire to fly is nearly as old as humanity itself. Ever since we walked the earth, we longed to get airborne, just like the birds above us did. In 1783 this dream became reality . “Historians credit France's Montgolfier brothers with the first pioneering balloon flight” . Aviation’s next revolution was in 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright took off with their ‘Flyer 1’ and flew 36 metres with their plane . Flyer 1 was powered by a petrol engine, just like later aircraft. Nowadays, aviation accounts for three percent of all CO2-emissions produced by mankind .
This doesn’t seem much, but more important is that profit of commercial aviation strongly relies on the oil price. Due to high prices of crude oil lately, profits of commercial aviation have been diminished and aviation industry is now looking for alternative energy sources to propel modern-day aircraft. Options that are being considered are bio fuels, hydrogen and ethanol . An option which is rarely considered is solar energy, an option we wanted to investigate.
In order to minimize chances of failure, we set up the following scheme. It divides up the project in five different phases, all having their own planning, goals and requirements:
Phase Elements Goal
Introduction phase Determine main goal, research questions, requirements, planning. Provide a starting point for our project.
Design phase Research, orientation, plans, calculations, proposals. Set up a design proposal, construction proposal and test proposal.
Construction phase Description of construction itself: what succeeded, what went wrong and in which way did we alter our designs and plans. Give an accurate description of the progress of our project.
Test phase Observations and experiences during testing and test results. Provide an accurate description of occurrences during testing.
Conclusion phase Interpretation of test results, conclusion, evaluation, recommendations for future projects. Describe what can be learned from this project, why it succeeded or not and how this project can be used later.
Main goal, purpose and expectations
The main goal of this project is to make calculations and respective designs to create an electric airplane prototype, capable of powering its flight either entirely or partially using solar energy. This project intends to stimulate research on renewable energy sources for aviation. Hopefully this will result in the environment no longer suffering due to emissions of burning oil products. In future solar powered airplanes could be used for different types of aerial monitoring and unmanned flights. Due to their light weight, silent engines and infinite flying time, they might also be used as spy planes in inhospitable areas.
By doing broad research and making appropriate calculations, we hope to design an aircraft which is actually able to fly. Our first concern is composing the right electrical system to be used in our aircraft. Selecting suitable equipment and making useful drawings and schemes will provide us with the basis for our project. Extensive testing will show how effective our system functions in different circumstances. Once completed, our circuit will be combined with the aircraft’s frame.
If we manage to correctly set up our calculations, the aircraft should be able to fly. In case testing shows the aircraft is not able to take off, we will first investigate how we can improve the plane’s properties. Though, when nothing seems to help anymore, we will slightly shift our main goal and try to create a controllable, energy efficient vehicle using all equipment we gathered so far. This will only be done in case all goes wrong.
This project runs over an extensive period of time, which will provide us with sufficient opportunities to do research and create designs. We will make a strict planning and a precise proposal to make sure our project will run smoothly. Assuming we will be able to make accurate calculations, our expectations are that we will actually produce an aircraft capable of flying on solar power. Even though we try to plan and predict everything as well as possible, setbacks might occur. To prevent failure, we shall make sure there is enough room for unexpected events.
From our main goal we can derive the main research question involved in our project:
Is it possible to create an electric airplane prototype capable of using solar power to partly or entirely power its flight?
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