SunUp Backpack In Context
SunUp Close up shot
SunUp Backpack plugged in and charging phone
Hinge mechanism prototypes
Solar Panel Wiring Testing
What it does
The design combines rigid polycrystalline panels with an articulating conductive hinge system to create a fully flexible array of higher efficiency panels that would move and flex when impacted or dropped. The energy dissipated helps reduce any damage caused.
The project came as a result of a collaborative final year major project between VFC (more specifically the north face brand) and Brunel University London. The core concept came through my years of hiking and general annoyance at the fragility of current solar panels. The issue is if one section breaks during a multi-day hike it's useless the rest of the journey. Solar panels are primarily designed for stationary use and current attempts at making them durable and convenient enough for use on the trail have fallen significantly short. The SunUp project aimed to solve the current grievances that myself and others have with solar.
How it works
In order to create this flexible system a lot of development time went into the hinge mechanism itself. The use of wires or ribbon cable to connect the moving panels would only be adequate for a short lifespan and eventually work-harden and break. By building the circuit into the metal hinges you can create a conductive joint that won't work-harden over time and is therefore much more durable. The use of rigid panels also greatly increases the lifespan of the product. Standard thin film fully flexible panels such as the ones you would be used to seeing in calculators have a much shorter lifespan in comparison to their rigid counterparts. The actual technology driving this project isn't anything new, however, the way it is combined is unique. The whole system is able to conform to whichever pack it is put on. Utilising as much space on the roof of the pack as possible. The nature of the repeating pattern allows for broken sections to be easily replaced.
The project was undertaken as part of a major project during my university course. The initial idea of solar systems integrated into a north face backpack was pitched to VFC and they agreed to allow further development as part of a collaborative project with Brunel University. The initial process began by identifying the need for a solar product. The market research showed massive flaws in current solar usage whilst backpacking. People complained of common breakages and unreliability. It also showed a large number of people take their devices out hiking with them and needing a reliable source of charging. Primarily the project focussed on solving the durability issues with current panels whilst still optimising the panels to get as much energy from the sun as possible. The hinge mechanism is at the heart of this solution. As you should see by the photos various prototypes were tested and a full printed prototype was developed to get an idea of scale and shape without any of the wiring or panels included. After the geometry and shape were decided upon the hinge was isolated and tested to ensure it gave a reliable connection between modules. This was then all combined to create the fully functional prototype you can see in the photos.
How it is different
This project solves the issue of fragility in panels whilst providing a system that can fully charge your phone and have capacity left over within 12 hours of walking. The panel output calculations have been specifically modified with respect to the average irradiance of the most commonly walked areas in the UK (Much lower light than the UK average). The internal 4000mAh battery bank means you still have a way to charge your phone even when the sun goes down. The most unique aspect of this product over others is the close integration with an existing pack. The panel buckles onto the backpack and wires into two internal USB ports, one in the base of the pack and one terminating at the hip strap pocket to allow charging and device usage whilst on the move. The integration with the pack allows for a better user experience, it redesigns how the solar panel is used when hiking from the ground up rather than just adapting existing approaches fit.
The future development of this project will hopefully be a more modular approach to the system. The hiking demographic is such a vast array of people that having a single product trying to be a middle ground between them often ends up being designed for no one, but by allowing users to customise the panel arrangement, positioning and layout it be fully adapted to each trip, adding on capacity to the panels and batteries as and when it's needed. It should be noted whilst this project is a collaborative project it doesn't reflect the future plans of VFC or The North Face, only those of myself, the designer.