December 17, 2008

The quiet before the storm

Ahoy faithful readers!

It has been a while since my last update here, but let me assure you that while the blog appears silent, it masks a very productive and busy undercurrent that has produced a new hull design, a revamped electrical system, as well as plans for a new custom lower unit.

The hull group has seen a flourish of new activity this semester, including the training of several new members who were pivotal in the approval of the new hull design. Under the joint leadership of Mike Barako and Andrew Moore, the design effort continued on the development from last year, by modifying our previous Nessie model to improve our performance in the endurance event by a 70% reduction in drag force.
For information regarding the exact details of the hull redesign, there will be a special guest post to the blog by the hull group members over the next week or two, so be on the lookout for that.
For now, I'm just going to tease you with some of the pictures from our Design Review, but I assure you that a more in-depth analysis will follow:

Now that the new hull has been chosen, the group has been hard at work laying the ground for a new low-energy, low-waste, and low-cost manufacturing technique that will be a substantial improvement over our previous methods. This manufacturing technique involves using, essentially, a hollow wooden frame, coated with small amounts of foam, that can be fiberglassed to directly without the use of bondo. This new method has been tested by the hull group in the manufacture of a box/chair for the High Bay, and has promising results. Further testing remains to determine how well the new method will hold up to complex curves and scaling. If this new method.

In addition to the Hull group, our Power Management group has also been hard at work developing a newly revamped electrical system, which features a custom motor controller, as well as improved telemetry and sensor development for monitoring our system. The new electrical system approved as part of our design review process is demonstrated in the graphic below (courtesy of power management member Austin Buchan):
This framework will incorporate hardware donated to us by one of our sponsors, National Instruments, and will allow us to get instantaneous measures of voltage, current, and power use at 5 points in our system. In addition, speed, RPM, temperature, battery voltage, and other information can be sent to the driver via interactive LCD panels mounted to the dashboard of the boat. The use of this hardware will allow us complete access to the motor controllers and charge controller so that we can optimize them for our needs. The Power Management group will be actively pursuing the development of this hardware during the beginning of next semester, so check back for updates as they progress forward!

Last, but not least, the propulsion group is in the midst of a design effort for a new lower unit for endurance which will allow us the flexibility of chosing the gear ratio and propellor characteristics that will best suit our needs. In past competitions, our lower unit has been unable to accomodate a propeller of the size we need, so work in this area will alleviate those constraints to give us free reign over our design choices.

Moving Forward

This semester has seen a couple of interesting new changes that will affect the way this team moves forward into next semester. First, I'd like to address some of the challenges we face moving into next semester, followed by the opportunities that we have that will allow us to face those challenges.

No matter how well prepared or ahead of the game we are, there is always going to be some unforeseen obstacles that will try and get in our way as we move towards completion. Whenever we develop a new system or way of doing something, there are going to be hiccups, characteristic of the learning process, that our schedules are going to have to account for. One of the things which has always suffered in past years is sufficient testing, and I'm making it my goal to ensure that we get out as many times as possible before competition so that we can iron out the kinks.

Finding funding for research is a tireless exercise in perseverance. This is particularly true in the recent economic climate of the past couple of months. We have been very fortunate to have had some great sponsors, who have donated a plethora of hardware to help cover our expenditures. Yet many of our greatest expenses, such as the new hull, new trailer, and testing (not to mention competition expenses) have yet to be accounted for by corporate sponsorships. Donations wokr in part to supplement this, and if you are related to CMSS, you should soon be receiving details for this year's drive towards a new trailer. I'll be working over break to add some of those details to the website, in order to attract an even large network of people interested in supporting what we do.

Space is always in short supply, and the construction of the Gates Center at CMU has really put a restriction on our build space in the Material Science High Bay. With a new hull on the way, clearing an effective workspace is orders of magnitude harder than it was when we constructed Nessie.

New Members:
We've been fortunate enough to have gained some truly excellent new recruits this semester, across all avenues of the organization. These bright, energetic people have brought the organization much farther than I was anticipating before the year began. I really am excited for what they, and other new recruits next semester, are capable of.

Old Members:
They're smarter, faster, more organized, and have a wealth of experience that will be invaluable in the coming months.

Contributions by some of our sponsors have given us some tremendous tools to use at our disposal for the tough technical challenges we face. This effort, along with any future support, has helped us better realize the potential of some of the people working in this organization. They are also a great source of technical advice, and we will continue to utilize their knowledge in the coming months.

This semester has seen a lot development in terms of branching out and exploring areas we used to take for granted. Hardware such as motor controllers, charge controllers, and lower units we always used to buy "off the shelf" since it was easy, and allowed us to focus on other tasks. This year, the tactic has been one of widening our breadth of expertise, as opposed to narrowing it. Frustrated with the haphazard performance of previous competitions, we are now in the position to question our "off the shelf" components, and take a more hands-on approach to modifying them for our needs. No longer are we simply satisfied with asking "How can I make it work?" We want to know why it works, what are the fundamental factors that influence its operation, under what conditions or assumptions is this component optimal. Through asking these questions we have brought the organization to a point where it can develop it's own systems, rather than just aggregating outside components.
Sure, we still do some of the same things we have always done, like designing and building our own hull forms, but this year is the start of a new era for CMSS. One in which we question the operation of our industry produced components, and when they are found to be sub-optimal, design our own to meet our needs. It's very exciting to watch, and I'm fascinated to see just how far we can take it.

So that's all for now! Be on the lookout for a guest post about the new hull design, as well as on the website for a new section that should make it easier to understand our donation process.
Thanks for all your support!

Until next time, take care and have a great holiday season!
- Mark Fuge
CMSS President 08-09

September 27, 2008

And So It Begins!

Greetings faithful readers, and welcome back to another exciting year of Carnegie Mellon Solar Splash action!

It has been an exciting few weeks for us as we have been heavily involved in recruiting, grant writing, and getting set up with some new resources. This kick-off post is designed to get you up to speed with our developments and display some pictures from our Team BBQ last Friday.

In Good Hands:
First things first, let me give you a formal introduction to this year's organizational leadership:
The appointed leaders for our divisions are:
Business and Marketing: Riddhi Roy
Hull: Michael Barako
Power Management: David Bromberg
Propulsion: Giridhar Pathak

I have full confidence that these four people will do a fantastic job this year. They are not only competent in what they do, but are also there to motivate others and help provide vision for the organization. I very much look forward to working with them this year.

Cheers to New Beginnings:
In addition to your old favorites, we have had a very good recruiting season, and have brought a lot of really bright people onto the team. We've had some great responses across the board, from Freshmen to Seniors, and I'm really looking forward to growing and learning with these talented new people.

We also have some valuable new sponsors this year that will help propel our team to new heights. Thanks to excellent work by team member Austin Buchan, we now have a sponsorship by National Instruments, who have graciously donated some of there hardware to our team. With their equipment, the Power Management team may be able to create both a custom motor controller and a custom charge controller by the end of the year. We are also in the process of working with 3M for some material sponsorship, and are looking forward to how their products can help our team. In addition, we are finishing up details for a grant from Ford Motor Company and are hoping to continue our past sponsorship with R.K. Mellon, and the upcoming SURG program. A full list of our sponsors for this year will be updated on our website once details are ironed out.

Grillin' and Greetin':

Of course, no update would be complete without a few pictures of the team in action, and what better time than at our Fall Barbecue! And of course, it wouldn't be CMSS if there wasn't a story behind it.
It begins, as all campus barbecues do, with a faithful trip from the High Bay to the Cut via Forbes Ave.

We were able to successfully navigate the hectic Forbes traffic with the help of team-members Mike Cushman, David Bromberg, Steven Mead, and Andrew Moore, as well as CMSS-appreciator Ben Berkowitz.

After reaching the cut, a few of the team took it upon themselves to clean out the communal grill, for everyone's benefit.

After cleaning, the setup began, and we fought off the wind and cold until the fire got going, with some help from the ingenuity of Andrew Moore and Robbie Wedler.

Finally, after 30 minutes of wrestling with the grill, we assembled the team and we were off to a flying start. Let me tell you, Kevin flips a fine burger, if I do say so myself.

^ Credit goes to Riddhi for getting this pretty clutch picture of Kevin. ^

We got a large portion of the team out at one point or another during the day, and it was great to see a good mix of new members, old members, and occasional random confused students who got to learn a little bit more about what we do. All in all, pretty good fun.

We also had an opportunity to take a new team photo, which we'll hopefully be rolling out to the website over the next few weeks:

Unfortunately, we only had a portion of the whole team there, but it was the best we could do given the circumstances. Thanks go to Jennifer Lawrence for helping us out by taking the picture.

And like any good story, this one would not be complete without a little intrigue and tension.
On the way back from the fence our trusty handcart for the boat gave way and lost its front wheels. As the skies began to open, unleashing its droplets of cold electronics-damaging wetness upon us, we had to think quick and get Nessie back to her home. We manned tarps and towels to protect her valuable innards, took the front of the trailer in our hands, and carried Nessie back down Forbes. Once again our faithfully unreliable hand-trailer has absorbed more of the blood, sweat, and tears of its keepers. Thanks to the sacrifices of our team members, Nessie is safely back in the High Bay and we can go about finding a solution to this chronic hand-trailer problem.

Looking Ahead:
As someone entering their senior year at CMU, you can feel a variety of feelings. Some feel happy to have made it this far and still be alive. Some start to feel anxious about life outside of what we have known. Some feel a sense of regret for all of the things they wish they had done, as well as a sense of urgency to check the last few items off their list while they still can. Most probably just feel tired.

For me, I feel this sense of tingling excitement.

This excitement is not for all the things I plan on doing, or the people I will meet, or plans I will make.

This excitement is because I have seen the type of people who are involved in this project, as well as the type of people who are just starting to get involved. This excitement is because I know that no matter how great my expectations, this group of people will somehow be able to exceed them.
Every week new challenges and trials seem to raise their heads, but every week the people around me step up and perform with greater resilience than they did before. I almost enjoy hearing about new difficulties, because I ardently believe that, so long as we have the right resources, there is nothing that this team can't do.

I am excited for this year, not because I know what this team can do, but for the exact reason that I don't know.
There seems to be this limitless capacity for innovative and creative thinking among our members, and all I know at this stage is that exploring this year with them is going to be one of my best experiences thus far. I am ready to be amazed, like I have been time and time again, by the struggles and triumphs of this team as we go forward. The projects we have planned are not easy, but I cannot think of any other people who I would rather have working on them.

In the end, it is important to realize one thing:

At Carnegie Mellon Solar Splash, we do not build boats, we build people.

Our members are our greatest byproduct. If we can build a world-class racing boat while doing so, all the better. The competition gives us a goal, but the people are what makes us a team.

Until next time!
- Mark Fuge
CMSS President 08-09

June 23, 2008

It's a Certain Kind of Bittersweet

Even though the competition ended yesterday, our team's journey has only truly ended today (the result of a double digit hour van ride back). Throughout this competition, our team has seen it's ups and downs, and tonight we tell the final chapter in the story of CMSS 2008.

This is where I would typically say something inspiring like "competitions are fleeting, but memories last forever!" However, I'm saving all the introspective stuff for the end instead.

You're just going to have to wait.

Day 5 - Sunday, June 22nd

I allegorically relate our performance over the course of the competition to that of a Phoenix.
Over the first few days we flew gracefully through the Qualifiers and Slalom course. Then, in our first Sprint qualifier we burned, literally (through a battery terminal) and figuratively. The next day during endurance, we continued to burn (this time our sun-burnt drivers) and people began to lose hope.
Then, like a Phoenix, we rose from what many presumed to be ashes, and showed everyone that while we might have been down, we were certainly not out.

It all started out with our favorite Armenian deciding that he would not become burned himself
That Greg Surabian sure does know how to take care of himself.

Next, after disassembling the boat from endurance the team readied the boat for Sprint, while I spent some quality time picking the brains of other teams.
Secret Agent Man - 9:00 am

Riddhi and I stopped by the College of New Jersey and talked extensively with them. They were great guys and were more than happy to explain the choices they made. I managed to get a picture of their motor system, which later on was awarded "Best Drive Train Design" for their minimalistic and efficient design.

I also got some pictures of the University of Northern Iowa's Solar Panel, which ultimately won the "Best Solar System Design" award. Their manufacturing technique was similar to the methods we were trying which was reassuring. They also shared our disdain for Silicon Solar, who also sent them broken cells and gave them terrible customer service. Turns out it wasn't just us after all.

In addition to Northern Iowa, the University of New Orleans also had some great panels, which they had mounted to the top cover of their boat for structural reasons. They also had a great way of tilting their panels during charging using this combination dolly/mount.

On the polar opposite end of the complexity spectrum, I managed to get a picture of ETS's motor controller (we think) which was completely student made. This thing just about defines complexity and meticulousness.

Which brings me to our first event of the day, our Sprint Race against ETS. Now, before I go any further I should explain that the Sprint Events are not really head to head races. Rather, the team's top two Sprint times are used to determine their final place. Now, I could explain how we did during our first Sprint heat, but I'd rather you just see for yourself:
Vindication is a Dish Best Served Fast - 12:30 pm

That race broke our top speed record, with 40.54 seconds! Our average speed was around 16.88 mph from start to finish, placing our top speed somewhere in the mid to upper 20s.
It's amazing what Nessie can do when battery terminals aren't melting. Needless to say, I finally felt vindicated.

After the race, Nessie took a well deserved rest, as we starting charging our batteries, both electrical and personal.

It wasn't long though before we were back in the water for another heat, this time a three way race between University of Northern Iowa, Middle Tennessee University, and us. Up against some stiff competition, we tried our best and closed out our performance with a respectable 50 seconds.
I switched over to still camera for this one, so enjoy some hi-res shots of everyone's favorite Wedler taking Nessie for a ride.
Packing it up - 1:00 pm

With the races all set and over, we took Nessie out of the water one last time and got her a well deserved wash down.
While we waited for the championship race and awards ceremony we started our final move out towards the van.

The Race of Champions and the Spear Fisherman's Revenge - 2:30 pm

The final three teams to make it to the Championship round were Istanbul, Cederville, and the University of Arkansas.
At first, Arkansas was off to a lightening fast start.
However, towards the end Istanbul closed the gap, and it was down to the wire.

Istanbul's driver and team were ecstatic as they raced down in celebration. The judges would later determine the Arkansas had technically won the Sprint Event, although if you ask me I'd say it was Istanbul that truly deserved it.

As we walked back to the dock, we saw Istanbul's team curiously perched around the dock. We thought they were all going to jump in together as a team.
Instead, they did something far more impressive.
It turns out that their team leader is actually an accomplished spear fisherman, and what we thought was group camaraderie, was actually a tracking session. A few moments later, he dove into the water and came out holding a fish.
Yes....this man just dove into the water and caught a large fish with his bare hands. Bare hands!
It's moments like these that make me feel inadequate as a member of my species.
Either way, it deserves mention. The guys for Istanbul are a great bunch of people, and they make one fine boat, at that.

Awards - 3:30 pm

While I won't go into too many specifics here, I will mention the awards that we received:
- 10th Place Overall
- 3rd Place Solar Slalom
- Sportsmanship Award

University of Arkansas came in 3rd place:

Istanbul came in 2nd place:

Cederville came in 1st place:

All of the teams competed very well, and it was some tough competition, to be sure. I look forward immensely to competing with these fine teams again next year.

A Final Word

It's always hard to let go of something when you have worked on it for so long and so hard. Even harder, I think, is to not get caught up in the moment and forget what truely matters in this competition.

For me, Solar Splash is not about winning. It's not about building a boat. It's not even really about solar energy.

For me, Solar Splash is about people.

Nessie does not represent a boat to me, but rather a collection of memories I have with the people who have helped define her. When I watch Nessie race, it's not about winning. It's about honoring those people, both present and past, who have poured their hearts and souls into making Nessie what she is today. We all shared a common vision, and it is my privilege to be able to help bring it to life on behalf of those who cannot be with us.

We get so worried about making sure that everything is working correctly, that sometime we fail to realize that a loss at the competition is nothing compared to the people that we lose once everything is done.

Today we lost three great members of our team: Andrew Choate, Will Wedler, and Greg Surabian.

Their strength, ingenuity, and willingness to give every last ounce of themselves to this project will never be completely replaced. I am eternally grateful for all they have done for this project, and intend to honor their vision for this project by trying to live up to high standards they have set for the leadership of this organization.

Regardless of how we do at any competition, I've come to realize that it's the heart of this team that really makes the difference......

.......and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

A special thank you goes out to all our patient readers who follow our progress, and we wish our recent graduates the best of luck in their new lives.

Until next time,

- Mark Fuge

June 21, 2008

We Shall Endure!

A few days deep into the competition, and it's time for the main event. The endurance competition nets teams up to 450 points, and represents a true test of efficiency and design. For 2 hours, teams attempt to complete as many laps around the course as possible, using solar energy to help propel them towards their goal. There were two heats over the course of today, which added up to a total of 4 hours in the baking Arkansas sun. Luckily for you, you get to enjoy it from the comfort of your own home.
The Internet is a wonderful thing.

Day 4 - Saturday, June 21st

Setup - 8:00 am

Once again, the team unearthed Nessie from beneath its protective blue tarp and took it out in the sun to shed its slippery dew-drop skin in the fresh morning air. If that wasn't enough imagery:
Luckily, no random trailer problem existed today, so we were able to assemble and move out to the dock with very little consequence.

Into the Heat - 9:30 am

The first Endurance heat saw our veteran Will Wedler at the helm, and we quickly maneuvered into position besides our fellow competitors.
Our progress through the first endurance heat can be best described as "slow, but steady". We maintained a pretty steady pace of ~3 mph, which is basically on par with last year's performance. While we were hoping to do better, we believe that problems with our lower drive train (propeller and lower unit) may have been the cause of our lower speed cap. We were drawing a consistent 30-40 amps during the race, which was achieved through the help of our new current sensors. Unfortunately, we were only getting around 5-6 amps from our panels (around 350 watts at operating voltage), instead of around the 8-9 that the panels are listed as providing. We believe that it was the combination of these imposed limits that lead to our decreased performance in the event. That being said, there are many lessons to be taken away from this, both from our boat's experience and from the experiences of other teams. Future iterations of our endurance configuration will draw from these experiences.

Our boat sat well in the water, as our trusty Wedler endured the mid-morning heat for two hours. In true Will style, he even took some time our to verify our current-sensor with the multi-meter we had stowed away.

The University of Northern Iowa raced with their "Panther" boat, which was very well constructed. Due to the sunk cockpit, you could almost forget that there was a driver for that thing.

The University of Arkansas competed with two boats, each with a substantially different design. One featured a similar hull to our own, and the other was an interesting catamaran design.

The University of Florida had a small little craft that sort of resembles our team's original Carnivore. Unfortunately for them they did not adopt the "slow, but steady" philosophy, and had to slow to a veritable crawl towards the end when their batteries started to give out.

The University of South Carolina also had an interesting boat, which placed their driver in a rather awkward position on the front. Sometimes the ingenuity of people surprises me.

Middle Tennessee created a catamaran design with a hull that could actually be flipped over. They caused quite a ruckus for almost violating the rules, and were given a one year waiver until the judges can append the rulebook.

Cederville returned this year with the one of their well-constructed wooden hulls from previous years, and once again shot around the course so quickly I could swear they were red-shifting.

The Washington State boat did very well, both on the water and in the crowds. The former due to good engineering. The latter due to their driver, Kevin, who was a consistent crowd pleaser with funny gestures and noises. It was nice to be part of such a relaxing atmosphere.

ETS returned this year with their ridiculously nice looking catamaran, called the "Photon". I have never seen such meticously detailing in my entire life. Of course, when your budget for your boat is $70,000, there better be something special about it. I can only imagine what CMSS could do with that amount of money (cough....sponsors.......cough).

Speaking of awesome, the "Muavenet", created by the students from ITU, has to be one of the greatest pieces of engineering I have seen from undergraduate students. There team did a fantastic job, and had to have their boat shipped here all the way from Turkey!

The Mighty Grill, and a Little Introspection - 12:00 pm

Normally lunch is not blog-worthy. However, there were two things that I thought noteworthy enough for a brief mention.

First of all, there was this amazing looking grill:
.... it was awesome.

Second, there was this fun little activity for the local kids in the neighborhood where each of them got to build their own small solar boat using a kit, and they raced them around the loading area while the teams had lunch.
I bring this up because it reminds me of one of the reasons I do so much for Solar Splash. At the end of the day, once all of our tools are packed away I am often so embroiled by the immediate competition that I lose sight of what this whole competition is really about.

Sure, we do research and testing and technical documentation, but at the end of the day this competition isn't really about the technical advances we come up with. This competition is about getting students interested in Science and Engineering and allowing them the opportunity to explore those interests in the context of sustainable engineering. By showing students that they can use their talents to not only do fun and challenging work, but to also provide solutions which will better the environment, you open up channels for the type of innovation that will drive the future of energy and sustainability.

While the little event that was held may have no impact what-so-ever, there exists a part in me that truly believes that competitions like this have the ability to make a difference. If introducing students to solar energy applications causes at least 1 or 2 of those people to seriously pursue a career in sustainable engineering, I will have accomplished more to help the environment than I could ever do via my 4 years in college.

Idealistic, I know, but for what it's worth it at least made me momentarily happy and gave me the motivation to continue my endless struggle with our endurance configuration. After all, we're back on the water at 1:30 for the second heat!

Captain Riddhi Takes the Heat - 1:30 pm

Back in the water now, and with a new skipper too! Riddhi Roy, our resident sophomore chemistry major took to the open waters as our driver for the second endurance race. After lining up with the rest of the pack, they were off, and Riddhi was well on her way.
Our performance this heat basically mirrored that of our previous heat, so no new surprises there. Overall we garnered around 20 laps total, between our two heats. Our drivers were ok and nothing broke, which for 4 hours of racing was impressive. Our final heat was cut 5 mins short on account of a depleted auxiliary battery, but our backup will serve us fine for tomorrow.
Endurance is a very fun event, and it was great to see so many engineering visions come to life.

We got our "Official" picture taken after the endurance race, although no official picture is complete without all of our other members who spent so much of their time working on this project. This picture is not complete without you.

Overall, the Endurance was less than we had hoped for, on account of our panels and lower drive train. We still gained valuable information, and a lot of our newer systems were performing well for themselves. With the lessons we have learned here, we should be able to carry forward an excellent set of goals and directions for development next year.

On the plus side, tomorrow is the next round of Sprint heats, and we aren't going to give this one up, that's for sure.
No battery terminal is going to stop us this time.

We're working as hard as we can to get you updates, so hang in there and keep an eye out for the final verdict over the next day or two.

Till next time,
- Mark