Tektronix oscilloscope enables solar-powered car to win race across Australia while inspiring a new generation of innovators
Every minute that can be reduced in debugging is an extra minute that can be spent
on essential testing
Every two years, the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge sees solar-powered vehicles race against each other across the Outback of Australia. In October, more than 40 vehicles made the 3,000km journey from Darwin in northern Australia to Adelaide in the south. The race was won by the reigning world champions, Innoptus Solar Team from Belgium, giving themselves a competitive edge by using a 2 Series Mixed Signal Oscilloscope from Tektronix to help their vehicle achieve maximum efficiency.
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The ‘Infinite’ solar car developed by the Innoptus Solar Team – which has won the 2023 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge – was designed to achieve optimal performance in energy efficiency and mechanics, delivered with a harmonious balance between the car’s aerodynamics and energy harnessed from its solar panels. Eager to repeat the success of an Innoptus Solar Team car that won the competition in 2019, the team of 20 students were driven by the desire to create a car for 2023 that was not only as efficient as possible but also drove innovation. In short, the team wanted to push the boundaries of technology to develop a vehicle that could change the future of durable mobility. To this end, the team was committed to encouraging vehicle construction companies to embrace sustainability and develop ground-breaking electric vehicle (EV) technology while seeking to inspire engineering students of the future. Building a car that could drive 900km solely on the energy of the sun has the potential to make a significant impact on society as a whole and on the health of the planet in particular. Two of the team’s main focuses that this project taps into are promoting renewable energy and encouraging entrepreneurship.
A vital tool in making all this possible is the 2 Series Mixed Signal Oscilloscope (MSO) from Tektronix, which the Innoptus Solar Team acquired in the summer of 2023. The oscilloscope was used for essential test and measurement work in every phase of the project, providing not only signal visualization but also serial bus decoding, automated measurements, mask testing and signal sourcing with its built-in arbitrary/function generator.
Tektronix’s distribution partner CN Rood in Belgium, who sponsored the team by loaning them the Mixed Signal Oscilloscope indefinitely was extremely valuable, as they provided guidance and expertise to the Solar Team. Whether focusing on design, building or preparations (including testing vehicle performance during the race itself), the Tektronix precision instrument enabled users to debug all the vehicle’s electronics and probe different signals to carry out continual, real-time analysis of the on-board battery management system. Cell voltage and temperature were two key factors that were measured and monitored. Ebert Kiekens, Low Voltage Engineer, says: ”Every minute that can be reduced in debugging is an extra minute that can be spent on essential testing.”
Because the team builds its own motors, which involves controlling highly complex electronics, the oscilloscope was used to measure a range of factors, such as different steering signals, to ensure the motor was driving correctly. The 2 Series MSO also tested the cohesion of all the vehicle’s sub-modules to ensure they communicated efficiently with each other. Digital signals were interpreted directly into messages and streamed to an external monitor.
With its long battery life (eight hours from two batteries) and weighing just 4 pounds, the 2 Series MSO is highly portable while its 10.1-inch TFT color touchscreen provides an intuitive user interface that is as simple to operate as using a hand-held tablet sitting on the operator’s lap in the vehicle. After the solar car was transported from Belgium to Australia, the Innoptus Solar Team used the oscilloscope to check how the vehicle was performing under markedly different environmental conditions, eg the extreme heat of the Outback. These checks were essential if the car was to achieve maximum efficiency levels during the race.
As a user of Tektronix products for more than a decade, the Innoptus Solar Team was aware of the capabilities of the company’s MSO devices. As well as its portability and ease of use, the 2 Series MSO appealed to the students because it enables user-specific set-ups to be created and switched between, depending on who is using the instrument, without losing any data – and all with just two clicks. The 2 Series MSO uses the same user interface as the higher specification range of Tektronix oscilloscopes.
Now the race is over, the oscilloscope is on its way back to Belgium, where the innovation team will use it for the next solar car, racing in 2024 in South Africa.
Ebert says: “Our project is never just about getting first place in the race, it is mainly about using innovation and entrepreneurship to bring about significant changes in how we bring solar-power vehicles and their components to the marketplace. Once we have proved that the technology is reliably efficient we can look into introducing our batteries into homes where they will enable energy to be used in a much more customer-friendly and cost-effective way.”
He adds: “The 2 Series MSO is such an intuitive, portable, tabled sized tool to use that it greatly simplifies the process of obtaining the correct information relating to our testing conditions. During the race, data was fed continually to our ‘brains car’, which followed behind the Infinite solar car, so that we were always aware of how efficiently the vehicle was running and if there were any issues that we needed to address. Having instant access to test and measurement results made all the difference as we went on to win this race for a second time.”
Ebert concludes: “I believe that engineers should take on every challenge that comes their way because you grow from every challenge you take on. That’s the main philosophy that drives our team – for every problem there has to be a solution and the 2 Series MSO has given us the solution that we need.”