Working on the ‘all-in-one photovoltaic sensor’ project led Maguire Mulligan to an internship with OUC’s Emerging Technologies team, then a full-time position as a research engineer. 

From the partnership that brought OUC a soccer ball-shaped solar sculpture and a cloud-impact mapping system now comes another solar energy-focused innovation, the “all-in-one photovoltaic sensor.”

Designed, built and programmed by since-graduated students in the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering & Computer Science spring/summer 2022 senior design program, the sensor offers a lot of bang for the buck. Only $20 for the cost of off-the-shelf materials. Smaller and lighter than a smartphone, the sensor collects performance data on photovoltaic (PV) panels used to generate solar power. OUC’s Emerging Technologies team is interested in using a more robust version of the prototype sensor to help evaluate different kinds and makes of PV panels, as well as install it on utility-scale solar arrays to monitor their performance.

Viewed on a smartphone or computer desktop, the data could help OUC choose one type or make of solar panel over another as it grows its solar energy portfolio. Solar is the key component of OUC’s goal to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with interim carbon reductions of 50% by 2030 ad 75% by 2040.

Justin Kramer, Manager of Emerging Technologies, said the sensor project began like other challenges his team has presented to UCF senior engineering students.

“We thought of creating a device that would sit in the array and give us data on the panels: What are they doing, what’s the voltage and current, their efficiency, degradation?” he said. “We decided to turn that question to UCF senior students to solve this problem.”

A group of eight seniors delivered a prototype in late July, right before their summer graduation. But it could only work with one PV panel at a time. The goal now is to refine the sensor so it is capable of working on a much larger scale, such as a row of panels in a solar field. Kramer also would like it to be able to detect and diagnose which one of possibly hundreds of panels is failing or has died.

That challenge now rests with Maguire Mulligan, who interned with Emerging Technologies while working on the all-in-one sensor project as a UCF senior studying electrical engineering. He joined Kramer’s team full time as a research engineer after earning his degree in August.

Kramer said he hopes to roll out a new and improved demo model by early next year, and by “the end of next year evaluate how we would roll it out for different applications, such as floating solar and land-based solar.”

Mulligan said working on the project while he was a student “exposed me the realities of the engineering world.”

“In school, you don’t really learn you about real word applications. So, I learned a lot about printed circuit board design, which is incredibly important to continue building this thing,” he said.

In addition to the all-in-one PV sensor, the working relationship between OUC and UCF has produced the “Gyration” solar sculpture situated outside Exploria Stadium on Church Street and a cloud-impact mapping technology that monitors clouds approaching solar farms and predicts their impact on power generation.

“We present UCF students with real world problems and they provide us with solutions,” said Kramer.