05:31 AM

Cambridge University Team Hopes Supercomputer Will Help It Win Grueling Solar Race

Endeavour, (above) the Cambridge University Eco Racing team's solar race car, was designed using a super computer to streamline the car's drag coefficient well below that of a Porsche 997.

By Intel Free Press

Back in 2009, they finished a distant 14th. This year, however, a small team of Cambridge students believes a more efficient aerodynamic design, better batteries and a technology arsenal will vault their car into the top 10 of the world's most prestigious solar-powered vehicle race.

The Cambridge University Eco Racing Team (CUER) will compete against 35 plus teams from more than 20 nations in the Veolia World Solar Challenge. The solar car race, which some call the Formula One of eco-friendly motor sports, starts Oct. 16 at Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. Over the ensuing 4 days, the teams will traverse 1,800 miles across the Outback to Adelaide on the continent's southern coast without using a drop of gasoline.

The vehicles are allotted just 5kW hours of stored energy -- enough to power a single 60-watt light bulb for approximately 3.5 days. All other power must come from the sun or recovered kinetic energy from the car.

After the 2009 disappointment, the Cambridge team turned to technology to gain an edge in the next edition of the biannual competition. Because CUER lacked the deep-pocket financing of some others in the field such as the University of Michigan team, which according to Wired magazine has spent more than $1 million on its latest car in a bid to bring the United States its first world title since 1987, the team took a daring approach to redesigning its solar-powered car.

To do that, the Cambridge team had to look beyond solar panels.

"When you look at the car, you think that the only technology on it is the solar panels, but that's definitely not the case," said team manager Emil Hewage (above). "This car actually drives and thinks at the same time. It requires masses and masses of data to run the car properly."

To reach peak performance, the Endeavour, named for the ship that took Capt. James Cook to Australian shores, harvests power from the sun and taps into a range of technologies, including a super computer, two high-end workstations, fast and rugged solid state drives for data storage, and a small, power-efficient in-vehicle computer according to Hewage.

CUER estimates that its car generates 2GB of data per day during the race. The in-vehicle computer, built with an Intel Atom processor, connects to the motor controller, solar array controllers, battery management system, steering wheel and lights.

Drive by algorithm...

The car's computer records live video and constantly calculates the slope of the road while collecting weather data from the support vehicle's telemetry system. It then runs real-time measurements through a software algorithm to determine how the car can complete the race in the shortest time. This so-called "cruise control" speed is used by the driver for more than 90 percent of the race.

"The car drives itself, and a lot of the time our driver is just steering to make sure not to hit things," said Hewage. "In the past we had to sacrifice because we didn't have the energy budget to let the car think. You had to send [the data] by radio, and often the radio would cut out. We'd have a big truck driving behind the car filled with desktop computers that did all of the number crunching. Now we can do all of this inside the car."

Top speed: 75mph...

According to data from the team, Endeavour can generate as much as 1.3 kilowatts of power from the sun, and has a top speed of about 75 miles an hour.

Shaped like a giant surfboard riding above three wheels, Endeavour is covered by nearly 65 square feet of silicon solar cells. A single-person cockpit bubbles up near the front of the car, and the carbon-fiber canopy and wheel covers are decorated with a slew of stickers, including the British flag and logos from sponsors such as Ford, HP and Schlumberger.

"It looks like a baby space ship that hasn't quite grown up yet," said Hewage.

Access to Computing Resources Advance Design

The Cambridge team got access to some cutting-edge technology shortly after meeting Mark Green, an Intel technical marketing engineer, at a transportation-related exhibit at a nearby school.

Green gave the team access to an HPC cluster that is powered by Intel Xeon processors, consisting of 16 nodes and 128 physical cores.

Getting the HPC cluster was like a getting a bigger hammer to get around a problem, right when the team needed it most, according to Hewage.

"It's the one thing that really puts us ahead of the other guys," he said. "And that's going to help us build for the next 2 years."

Today the team completes computer simulations in a matter of minutes versus 24 hours, as having a supercomputer to help them crunch such data-intensive problems as computational fluid dynamics.

"It took 8 weeks to design the first version of the car in 2009," Hewage said. "But this year, in a space of about 24 hours, we improved the performance by nearly 10 percent. That's because of the HPC cluster that we used in our redesign process."

According to Green, the additional computing resources helped the Cambridge team streamline the car's shape, bringing the drag coefficient down to just 0.17. By comparison, a Porsche 997 has a drag coefficient of 0.28.

To build an in-vehicle computer, Green helped CUER get its hands on an embedded Intel Atom processor and 80GB Intel solid state drives (SSDs).

Hewage said that they don't "really use the SSDs for their speed, which helps as does their power efficiency, but it's actually for their rugged nature ... their ability to keep functioning when a typical hard drive would probably not survive riding on our car's stiff suspension."

Green said the Cambridge team is showing how technologies can help researchers develop electric vehicles that could someday be more widely available.

"We all have to live on this planet, and technology can play a vital role in creating a more sustainable future," he said. The Cambridge team is innovating quickly and they are grabbing the interest of more people leading up to race day."

"We are an underdog," said Hewage, "but we'll be showing up with a car this year that will definitely be top 10. It's about turning up with a really smart design, really thinking about your design and putting in the proper preparation."

Watch out for kangaroos...

"Driving 3,000 kilometers, chances are you might hit a kangaroo," he said. "You could've spent your whole time designing a car, the fastest thing on Earth, then you hit a kangaroo and it's all over."

See how the team does. CUER will be blogging, sharing photos and providing Twitter updates during the event, and is developing an application that will enable people to view real-time telemetry data during the race.

More than 35 teams from over 20 nations will compete in the Veolia World Solar Challenge. The solar car race, which some call the Formula One of eco-friendly motor sports, lasts about four days and spans some 1,800 miles. The race starts at Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory and crosses the Outback to finish at Adelaide on the continent's southern coast. Photo from The World Solar Challenge www.worldsolarchallenge.org/.