Human-powered subs: more than just a race

The Polish team surfaces after running into issues. Photo: G Tester
The Polish team surfaces after running into issues. Photo: G Tester
Team Omer from Canada’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure, with the winning sub
Team Omer from Canada’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure, with the winning sub
There are inevitably a few hitches along the way. Photo: G Tester
There are inevitably a few hitches along the way. Photo: G Tester
Various forms of propulsion are tried at the human-powered sub races, some, like this one from the University of California, had a flapping tail. Photo G Tester
Various forms of propulsion are tried at the human-powered sub races, some, like this one from the University of California, had a flapping tail. Photo G Tester
Warwick University's 'Godiva 4' human-powered submarine meant the team gained project management skills right down to financing. Photo G Tester
Warwick University's 'Godiva 4' human-powered submarine meant the team gained project management skills right down to financing. Photo G Tester
Industry Database

What is it about racing human-powered submarines? Teams are willing to travel from Europe, the US and Canada to pedal a wet, open torpedo-shaped shell round a pool against the clock, but winning isn’t everything: many seem happy just to be there.

Part of it is the thrill of innovation in the raw: alongside the design aspects the race also tests the ability to work under pressure. On-the-spot adaptation covered everything from 3D printing to ‘international cooperation’ – i.e, borrowing spares from competitors – and, finally, patching things together with tape.

Certainly, TU Gdansk team’s entry needed substantial revision to steering, gears and propulsion: “We hadn’t foreseen that having four identical propellers would mean the sub turned in a circle” admitted student Ewelina Cioch. At the last minute they adapted their CAD design to create a left-hand screw, producing it on QinetiQ’s 3D printer. While - like many - getting round the course remained a challenge, the team was satisfied they’d given it their best shot.

The annual race (there’s also a US version) which took place at QinetiQ’s Ocean Basin this summer attracts diverse entrants: naval departments, universities and commercial firms sit alongside each other, more, veteran teams happily compete with those having more enthusiasm than experience. Usefully, the entrants are not just judged on speed alone but also on design which, alongside the various classes, evens out the field.

A handful, such as overall winner Team Omer from Canada’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure, come with a sophisticated vehicle honed by successive generations of the race - although the willingness to try something new is almost universal amongst the contestants. A few years ago they went against the grain by installing single blade propulsion: the sub’s performance overturned the initial scepticism and Omer 11 now has a set of monoblades that are a little faster than more traditional doubles. This time the team is experimenting with a slightly bent propeller which straightens under thrust pressure.

As naval architecture student Ann Reumer of the TU Delft team explained, the event lends itself to valuable insight: “Normally as soon as you finish a vessel design your involvement stops. With this project we had to see all the way through to build and into operation. It makes you think about manufacturability as well as just the concept.”

It’s a point that event judge Liz Whitrow of BMT underlined: “On paper it can all add up - but can you build it to the tolerances that you think you can?” She adds: “It’s also very useful to experience just how far it is from CFD to reality.”

Interestingly, Whitrow has watched the steady emergence of new technology. “We’re seeing more electronics rather than, say, mechanical depth checks. And, most of the teams now use 3D printing for the backups: for example, they may have nicely manufactured fins but if they break them they have a reserve.”

Though not competing as they didn’t make the finals, Warwick University was there just to put their submarine in the water. Ollie Durham explained as the project counts toward individual members’ engineering MA “there’s a real pressure on us to innovate”. The team investigated alloys, stainless steel and synthetic components suitable for wet environments, incorporating low-friction and lightweight plastic gearing: interestingly, rather than being relegated to spares, 3D printing accounts for much of Warwick’s production, something Durham will be following up in an internship investigating new, industry-wide tooling methods.

Finally, the development hones commercial sense. Team member Jack Graham explained: “As part of our course we have to finance the build entirely ourselves, promising publicity or research in return for sponsorship. So it’s not just the engineering perspective we gained, it’s also been about true project management.”

By Stevie Knight

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