Tallinn University of Technology

One of the most exciting engineering projects in Estonia through the eyes of a team member – an international student from TalTech.

Solaride prototype
Solaride prototype in front of Mektory

Powered by sun and ambition, the Solaride project brings together the most outstanding mentors and the most enthusiastic students of Estonia with the purpose of developing the first solar-powered car in the country.

The project aims to contribute to the sustainability of the transport sector, and in 2023 it will try its hand at one of the world’s most preeminent competitions for innovative solar power – the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia.

The Solaride team has been exponentially growing and currently includes 70 students from different Estonian universities. Among them is Oleksii Stepaniuk from Ukraine, who studies in the Integrated Engineering BSc program at TalTech. In this article, you can read about Oleksii’s perspective on engineering, Estonia, and the Solaride project.

Solaride is a team of students working on a voluntary basis, meaning their only motivation is growth, learning, and an opportunity to make an impact.

Oleksii Stepaniuk
Oleksii Stepaniuk

“I want to be as close as possible to the great change in the world when it happens.”

I became interested in engineering in 10th grade. I do not remember anything special happening to me that triggered it, but it was the moment I realized one thing: “I want to be as close as possible to the great change in the world when it happens.” From then on, it became my motto for life. After it became clear to me that I wanted to become an engineer, I started looking for an opportunity to study abroad. And that’s how I found out about TalTech.

I chose the Integrated Engineering program because it was a perfect opportunity for me. The program is in English, which was one of the main criteria for me. Besides, it contains a lot of disciplines from different fields. Although I mostly prefer the ones related to mechanical engineering.

Out of the comfort zone

I learned about Estonia from an acquaintance of mine. She was studying at the University of Tartu at the time when I was in 10th grade. She told me that there are some cool universities in Estonia, so I could check them out and maybe even apply to some programs.

I felt motivated to come to Estonia to study in an international environment and find many friends from different countries. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and become more independent. I didn’t want to go to a university in the same city where I went to high school. It seemed to me that in that case, nothing would change at all.

The Solaride car will compete in the cruiser class, which means it is essentially similar to a regular passenger car. It has four wheels and has to be eligible for the streets of Australia and Estonia. During the competition, there will be more than one person inside (in Solaride’s case, there will be four).

Solaride’s main purpose is to create something innovative that could really be used in the future car industry.

Advantages and disadvantages of Estonian student life

One of the main advantages is internships. I’m not saying there are no internships in Ukraine, it’s just that to find them, you’d need to grind really hard, as they won’t be in plain sight. But here in Estonia, when there is an opportunity, you’ll definitely hear about it. And me being in Solaride is a great example of this being true.

Another great thing for those into hiking – student life can become even brighter with a great choice of hiking routes across the beautiful landscapes throughout Estonia.

So far, I have experienced only one disadvantage, directly connected to the geographical location of Estonia. In the winter, it sometimes feels like the sun doesn’t show up at all, and it can be depressing from time to time.

Solaride work sessions in Tallinn
Solaride work sessions in Tallinn

From a poster at the university to the Solaride team

I saw Solaride posters at the university and thought I would look into it. I realized I had no practical experience in the engineering field whatsoever except for university lab classes, and so I was eager to learn more. Also, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading, this project seemed like the wisest way to spend additional free time.

The car will ride on average 70 km per hour and can ride up to 130 km per hour, but speed is not the only criterion that will determine the winner. The other criteria considered are technical solutions, comfort, practicality, etc.

Drivers will have to wear a helmet and a quite thick fireproof costume. As there will be no air conditioning in the car, it will be quite a challenge to drive 3000 km in the Australian desert with such clothing on and little room in a car with four people.

The incredible people of Solaride

When I came to Solaride, I knew almost nothing about the project or the people leading it. All I was concerned with was that Solaride was trying to build a solar car and participate in the World Solar Challenge. I felt like it would be hard to fit in, as in most cases, I was the only one who didn’t speak Estonian. But my team members proved to me that I was just overthinking it!

The most exciting thing about Solaride for me is the number of interesting people participating in the project, either as mentors or members. For instance, it took me a while to realize that Tõnu Samuel, who was always cracking a lot of jokes during meetings, is a well-known Estonian hacker, or that Tiit Liivik, with whom I (after getting out of the sauna) casually discussed how to build a solar car, is actually a founder engineer of Starship.

Overall, Solaride gave me an opportunity to talk to a bunch of incredible people in the engineering field, and the goals that we have set out for ourselves keep my everyday life all but boring.

Solaride work sessions in Tallinn
Solaride work sessions in Tallinn

Overcoming challenges

I am a mechanical engineer in the mechanics team, and I am responsible for the braking system of the car, but as my part is mostly done, I am in charge of some other tasks as well. I picked this role without even thinking much about it, and when I got to work with brake theory, that was when the real challenge started. A lot of articles to read, a lot of stressful evenings, a lot of tasks that needed to be done. The first few weeks in Solaride were like a cold shower for me. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” was perfectly applicable to me at that time, and I think it was the most valuable lesson I took from Solaride – I realized how many things I don’t know and will yet have to master.

In 2021, the traditional BWSC was postponed, and it will take place virtually instead. The teams around the world will still have an opportunity to compete in a format of alternative competitions that are currently being organized. There are a few opportunities, and Solaride is planning to take part in one of them.

Typical work session

Typical work sessions in Solaride look something like the following – you are solving problems, and then you are solving some other silly problems that came out from your previous solution, then you laugh at how stupid it was to deal with these or those issues. And this everlasting cycle of solving problems is the daily life of a Solaride mechanical engineer (can’t say for electrical engineers though, they have their own atmosphere in there).

We usually work from home, but we have offices in Tartu and Tallinn, so we also come over there, and it becomes easier to discuss problems right after they occur. Overall, in my opinion, live communication cannot be replaced with chatting via the Internet.

There are so many cool people in my team – from my team leads Karl August Tatunts and Mart Erik Kermes to my peer Peter Kipp, who is just about to finish high school next year. And I can say we get along pretty well, especially considering that we have known each other for only a few months. And I think the more problems we solve together, the closer it brings us as a team.

The purpose of Solaride is not only to build a car for a competition. The goal is also to make a change in Estonia’s transport sector, give students the opportunity to get practical knowledge, popularize natural sciences, and bring Estonian universities to work together on a common project.

In the future, I will…

Firstly, I am planning to take part in the competition with other solar cars and continue working in Solaride until I graduate. And afterward, there is a number of options that I am considering right now. One of them is pursuing a master’s in aerospace engineering.