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The Open Source Sun Tracking / Heliostat Project

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  • The Open Source Sun Tracking / Heliostat Project

    The initial goal of this project was to make complex solar energy projects more accessible to the DIY hobbyist. Over time though, it has grown sophisticated enough to be used by both amateur and professional alike.

    The images below give a general overview of the Open Source Sun Tracking / Heliostat Project and also show some of the projects where I served as a consultant.

    More info can be found at www.CerebralMeltdown.com
  • What is a Sun Tracker?

    A sun tracker is a machine that periodically reorients itself throughout the day to keep its solar collection surface directly facing the sun. Typically, this surface is comprised of a solar panel, but other options are also possible. The tracker in the picture below, for example, has both solar panels and a hot water collection system integrated into it.
  • A tracking system built by Sid Frantz featured at the Minnesota state fair. The tracker utilizes the code and electronics made available from this project.
  • What is a Heliostat?

    Put simply, a heliostat is just a mirror that follows the sun in order to reflect its light at the same spot throughout the day. Although not as popular as solar panels, they can potentially give you access to considerable amounts of untapped heat energy for a much lower price.
  • Above pictures from left to right:
    An image depicting the sun's light bouncing off of a heliostat and into a house.
    A small test heliostat set up on my apartment's porch.
    The reflected light inside of my apartment from the test heliostat.
  • The Sun Tracking / Heliostat Program

    Over one thousand lines of code and hundreds of hours of development time were required to make the Sun Tracking / Heliostat Control program applicable to a myriad of situations. Additionally, the code is written for the extremely popular Arduino microcontroller which is designed to be approachable to individuals with a wide range of different skill levels.

    Some of the features of this program are as follows:

    • Capable of controlling either a sun tracker or a heliostat
    • Can control multiple machines simultaneously
    • Customizable for different types of machine designs
    • Able to control either linear actuators or gear reduction systems for machine's motion
    • Integrated stepper motor acceleration
    • Can be used at any latitude and longitude
    • Integrated wind protection mode that moves machine into horizontal position
    • Manual control of machines for maintenance purposes
    • Manual control of heliostats during target selection
    • Able to program multiple targets into each heliostat

  • Sun Tracking / Heliostat Electronics
    Naturally, it takes more than just a computer program to control a sun tracker or heliostat. Thus, one of the objectives of the Open Source Sun Tracking / Heliostat Project is to provide examples for an electronics system as well.
  • The electronics design for the Sun Tracking / Heliostat Project shown in a format that is easily understood even by novices. 
  • A quick screenshot of the PCB that is currently under development. The PCB will make it very easy to add Sun Tracking / Heliostat capability to the popular Arduino platform.
  • User Projects

    To wrap things up, a few of the projects that have been made possible thanks to the Sun Tracking / Heliostat project are shown next.
  • Heliostats Designed by Students from Haagsche Hogeschool
  • Heliostat designs made by industrial design students at Haagsche Hogeschool from the Hague (Holland). They are currently building the real life model and are using a derivative of the heliostat control code that I wrote.
  • The above rendering shows how the students hope to apply their design. The heliostats on top of the building are reflecting the light into the adjacent building.
  • Heliostats Applied to Rotational Casting by Light Manufacturing
  • A picture of the heliostat array used by Light Manufacturing LLC. The array uses a derivative of the heliostat control code that I wrote. 
  • Light Manufacturing's goal is to use the heat from the sun to replace propane for the process of rotational casting. The above image shows light from several heliostats concentrated on a single rotational casting machine.
  • This image shows a close up of the rotational casting machine which is used to mold plastic objects. Normally, the process is inherently wasteful, but by using the energy from the sun it becomes both cheap and "green".
    Although still a relatively new concept, the process has already been successfully applied to the molding of Technomad's outdoor loudspeakers.
  • Sid's Sun Trackers
  • This image shows a Sun Tracker built by Sid Frantz. (Same image as was shown previously.)
    Sid sells these machines commercially, and the above unit is just one of several that he has installed.
    This particular tracker has both solar panels and a solar hot water heater incorporated into it.

  • More Information

    More information about the above user projects can be found at the following links.

    http://zininzelfdoen.wordpress.com/
    (This site is in Dutch, and you may have to search through the previous posts to get to the heliostat stuff)

    http://lightmanufacturingsystems.com/

    http://www.cerebralmeltdown.com/2011/07/19/sids-solar-panel-sun-tracking-machine/
    http://www.cerebralmeltdown.com/2011/09/18/sids-sun-tracking-machine-at-minnesota-state-fair/