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