Free Solar Charger PCBs

A reader of this blog was so kind to send me a number of surplus boards of two of my solar charger designs. Thank you, Joachim.

Solar Charger Hall of Fame

[November 10, 2017]

After just a few days, all of the boards were sent out to all over the world. Today, the first photo of an assembled board has arrived. I’ll post this and all following photos here:

By Orkhan from Germany

Arduino Solar Charger

The first variety is my Arduino solar charger shield. Being my first attempt it is maybe not the most advanced design but it’s by far the simplest. So it’s well suited if you want to get your hands dirty while keeping the level of complexity reasonably low and do all your programming via the Arduino IDE. And despite its simplicity it operates very efficiently – apart from the power-hungry Arduino.

Solar Charger Rev C

This is a relatively recent and far more advanced design. It is very low power, highly efficient, comes with USB and lots of bells and whistles. So if your ambitions are somewhat higher this board is for you.

The Rules

Now here are the rules. As the title of this post suggests, I give these away for free. I ship them world wide absolutely free of charge. All I ask for in return is a photo of the assembled board within 6 weeks after you get the board. A maximum of 2 boards per person (one of each design).  First come first served. Just send an email to [admin at soldernerd dot com].

RaspberryPi Robot

It’s been almost two years since I did (or at least started) this project but I never sat down to document it. That’s what I want to do today. As the title says it’s about a little robot based on a RaspberryPi. Like many of its kind it is driven by a pair of stepper motors each driving a wheel directly attached to the respective motor axis. At the back there is another smaller, pivotable wheel to keep the robot in balance.

Here’s a video of the finished robot in action, running a simple demo program demonstrating the various functions.  By the way, I’ve started a youtube cannel to share these kind of videos. I’m not really a video guy so this text and photos blog will stay my main medium but some projects like this robot, videos are a welcome addition.

Yes, I’m well aware that many similar designs already exist out there I could just go out and buy a kit like this. But making my own sounded more interesting so when I was looking for a Christmas present for my godson of sorts I did just that.

Above is a close-up of the main PCB that I’ve designed and built for this project. The idea is simple: There is a PIC16F1936 microcontroller that communicates with a RaspberryPi over I2C. The PIC then handles all the low-level details of controlling a pair of Allegro A4982 stepper drivers. These work at up to 35 volts, handle up to 2 amps of current and can hence drive much more powerful motors than the relatively small NEMA 17 size motors I’ve used here. They are easy to use and feature microstepping up to 16th steps.

Besides the two stepper drivers there is a ULN2803 providing 4 power outputs capable of driving up to 1 amp each. The ULN2803 includes free-wheeling diodes so these outputs could be used to directly drive somethingn like a relay or a DC motor. But at least for now these outputs drive some RGB LEDs at the front as well as a buzzer.

The original idea was to power the RaspberryPi  from the 5V linear regulator on the board and then draw the power for the PIC from the RaspberryPi’s 3.3 volt rail. Since the PIC uses only a few milliamps that’s entirely possible.

Unfortunately I haven’t given that setup a lot of thought before building the board. Of course, when powered from something like 12V, the LM2931 regulator gets way too hot when powering a RaspberryPi that pulls a few hundred milliamps. So I’ve sacrificed one of my solar charger RevC boards that includes two very powerful USB charging outputs.

During testing and debuggin I’ve used a small 12V AC/DC converter screwed to the bottom side of the robot. Once more or less completed I’ve changed the power supply to an old 3-call (11.1V) LiPo battery from a RC helicopter. It’s no longer fit for flying but still adequate to power this thing for a few hours.

The entire structure is laser-cut from 5mm medium-density fiberboard and held together with M2.5 torx screws with square nuts. M2.5 square nuts measure precisely 5x5mm so that goes together rally nicely. I’ve added and changed a few things as I went along, drilling extra holes to mount the blue PCB for the power supply, the LEDs, to hold the battery in place and some other things. But the structure as such works very nicely. It’s relatively simple if you have some place to do laser cutting (try your local fab lab…) and is inexpensive and sturdy.

The weels are laser-cut from the same material and are sized to measure precisely 200mm in circumference. That’s handy since the steppers feature 200 steps per rotation. 

 

That’s about it, most of the relevant files are on github. The OpenSCAD files for the laser cutting are not so just let me know if you’re interested in them. I’m happy to share them, too. Here are the links for the software and hardware, respectively.

As always, I welcome any thoughts or comments.

MPPT Solar Charger – Update

It’s been a while since I posted anything related to my MPPT Solar Charger project. That doesn’t mean that no progress has been made…

I’ve performed many hours of testing, pushing the charger to and even beyond its 75 watts rating. I was able to confirm the very high efficiency n the range of 96 to 98% over a wide range of loads from 1 to 75 watts. And I’m happy to report that during all those tests I haven’t damaged anything. I’m more than pleased how this little charger is performing.

The most obvious progress that I’ve made is the mechanical design that you can see on the various photos here.  The case is a pretty standard 115x90x55mm cast aluminum box for which the boards were designed right from the start. So if you’ve ever wondered about the peculiar shape of the display unit’s PCB you now know why. If I had made it rectangular it won’t fit.

I’ve milled the various holes and slots out of that cast case on a manual mill which was somewhat time consuming but a lot of fun. The slots at the back for the in and outputs have turned out particularly well I find. Hence the close-up 😉

I’ve also given away some boards over the months. A few of them went to an open-source project named MeshPoint where they are integrated into a WiFi hotspot designed for outdoor use in disaster areas, refugee camps and the like. The project is also on hackaday .io where it runs for this year’s hackaday prize.

Together with the bords that I’ve used myself for testing I’m slowly but surely running out of the protopac that I’d ordered from dirtypcbs.com. So I decided to make a few minor changes to the board resulting in Revision D. The changes are really slight and require no or only slight changes in the firmware.

By far the biggest change concerns the flash chip. As I’ve mentioned before, the last one was simply a bad design choice because it can’t do sector ereases. The Atmel AT45DB161E can do that and provides 16Mbit (i.e. 2 MB) of storage which is plenty for our application. This change of course does require firmware changes but since hardly any code for the flash chip has been written so far that’s not really an issue.

I’ve also included the surge suppression diodes that I removed when going from Rev B to Rev C. They are not really required but make the charger far more rugged against any spikes in the (particularly input) voltage. That also makes testing quite a bit safer so  I thought at least having the option of including them is well worth while.

The signals from the three temperature sensors now get RC filtered to hopefully solve some issues I’ve experienced with overly noisy measurements. Placing the capacitors close to the microcontroller was a major challenge but I think I did the best I could.

The other changes are really tiny. I’ve fixed a mistake on the silk screen, changed a number of footprints to make the parts easier to solder and added a diode from the USB bus to the output. That allows to power the charger via USB. That’s obviously only useful for testing and debugging but there it’s a nice feature.

If you want to check out the details, they are on github: https://github.com/soldernerd/SolarChargerHardware. Or click here for the next post in this series.