Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Solar Powering the Turnkey FrontlineSMS

The turnkey solution design is such that we want the simple click of the power button to activate a pre-configured system for use. This would be for Freedom Fone, FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi software applications as per the low cost voice, text-ing, and mapping technologies used in the project, for knowledge mobilization.

In this instance our focus was on testing a FrontlineSMS 1.6.2  installation. It was installed on a 215 x 60 x 190mm 1.5Kg Mini-PC with a Intel Atom dual-core 1.86 GHz processor, 2GB DDR RAM, 8 GB SSD ROM. The Mini-PC draws a 20W load and requires a DC 12V and 5A of power supply.

Recently we tested the turnkey to run on Solar Power. We installed a 165 x 25 x 1.4cm solar panel on top of the RDS office roof in Kaddirweli, Batticaloa district. The panel can generate up to 130W of power. We used a 12V 35A car battery (not the recommended expensive deep cell solar power battery) to store that solar panel generated electricity. A 12V 10A Charger Controller regulates the current between the solar panel, battery, and the load (i.e. Mini-PC).

Since the Charger Controller load connectors deliver 10A and the Mini-PC (load) draws only 5A the surplus 5A would charge the battery. We expect a minimum 6 hours of strong sunlight (see weatheronline for Batticaloa monthly/daily average sunlight). During that the Mini-PC will run on direct solar generated electricity, during day time. The battery would supplement that with another 8 hours during night time, which gives us a total of 14hour, according to our calculation. The next step is testing expected power consumption patterns.

Of cause it is hundred times more economical to consume power through the main grid to simply power the 20W computer, if the infrastructure is available. The solar powered Turnkey's utility is higher when we offer options to power a couple of light bulbs and providing mobile phone charging outlets through the same system. Our thinking is that the Mini-PC does not need to run 24/7. The community can decide to run it at certain hours; thus, there may be a surplus of power to use for other purposes.

We are readying for a campaign in Verugal and Kaddirvelli belonging to the war torn area in the Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka. It will involve farmers from the two villages.

In October 2013, we consulted the two communities during an expedition in determining the information needs. They were particularly interested in trying three activities:
  • sharing local crop prices
  • alerting elephant attacks
  • flash flood warnings.

A primary reason to power the Turnkey with Solar energy was because Verugal community does not have access to the main national power grid. We realized that shortcoming, among five others, during our first visit with the community. Nevertheless, a solar powered low-cost ICT system could always be handy during a long power outage, such as one caused by a disaster.

During our field tests we realized that starting up the Turnkey FrontlineSMS should include "auto detecting" the ZTE MF637U and then connecting to the Cellular network Short Message Service.

Unfortunately FrontlineSMS could "auto detect" the dongle. That would have been the final step for a ready to use FrontlineSMS Turnkey solution. Now we are back to the drawing board to figure out how to complete that step. Otherwise, a human operator has to navigate through a computer screen to click the FrontlineSMS "Auto Detect" button.

Yet another iterative community centric development cycle: design, build, test, and re-design. However, development cycles with our low-cost Turnkey text-ing technology is quite promising - being able to fully run a FrontlineSMS installed Mini-PC with a car battery charged by a solar panel.