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

June 20, 2008

A Sprint Towards the Finish

Today saw the beginning of the Sprint Event, which places 250 points on the line for this year's competition. You'll hear not only about today's trials and tribulations, but also about how some of yesterday's issues got resolved.

Day 3 - Friday, June 20th

Setup and Fixing the Trailer - 8:45 am
After a day of qualifiers, it was time for CMSS to bust out the real stuff and get ready for our first major event. We started the day by charging our sprint batteries in preparation for the day's event.
While charging our batteries, we decided to remedy our trailer problem from the previous day. We purchased a couple of caster wheels the previous night, and decided to spend our morning laying our "Enforcer" to rest.

Meanwhile, some inter-collegiate mingling was occurring, thanks to a slack line provided by Kevin from Washington State University.
While waiting for our Sprint heat, we took some time out to watch some of the other teams compete. Unfortunately USC took on a bit of water, due to what appeared to be a CG problem.
With Nessie in the water we lined up for our first sprint heat.
I don't have many pictures of the heat itself, on account of taking video. However, the heat itself did not go as planned. At the start the high-torque we were applying to the motors caused some timing belt slippage, which eventually subsided once we got up to speed. The real kicker occurred 3/4 of the way through. It stopped Nessie in its tracks, but luckily neither the boat nor the driver got hurt. What could cause such a peculiar event, you might ask? In this case a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
At some point during the sprint run, the battery terminal arced, creating the equivalent heat of Arc Welding and melting the terminal connection to the battery. It was the first time anyone on our team had witnessed such an event. The remnants of the melted terminal can still be seen on the battery case.

Despite the strange series of events that transpired today, our team remains glad that no one got hurt and that the damage is easy to repair and should not happen again. Mike did a great job as driver and he will be sorely missed now that he has gone back to Philly. Part of the excitement of this competition is the constant knowledge that at any moment something could go wrong, and today tested those exact boundaries.
Yet, as with every problem, the CMSS team emerges more willing and ready than ever before to complete what we have started. Every wrong turn creates opportunity for new knowledge and innovation, and CMSS really takes that to heart. In a way, these set backs provide far more knowledge than any normal run ever could.

We will use what we have learned today, both on the endurance course tomorrow as well as the second Sprint heat on Sunday, in order to provide a stepping stone for further adjustments. We feel confident in our system and are very excited about the prospects that tomorrow will bring for us.

To all our faithful readers, thank you for your support, and keep tuned for as regular an update as I can provide.

- Mark