Engineers are thinking small for miniature submarine races Competition tests speed, creativity

June 14, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Chris Albert and his buddies must feel as if they live in a yellow submarine.

For the past eight months they have spent almost 40 hours a week of their own time designing and building a baby submarine they plan to enter in the International Human Powered Submarine races this week in Florida.

The sub, just 13 feet long and 35 inches in diameter, is painted electric yellow with neon patches on the outside.

It looks like a big toy, says Mr. Albert, 25, an electrical engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Annapolis. But in science, toys like this often develop the technology of the future, he says.

He and five others began working on the project nearly a year ago. Local businesses donated materials and money.

The races, held off the beach at Fort Lauderdale, draw competitors from academia and business. They pit two-person, human-powered subs against each other. From Wednesday until June 26, the sub teams compete in categories such as speed, creativity and cost-effectiveness.

The curious mini-subs typically operate with one person lying on his stomach, peering out the bottom to guide the craft while the other crew member propels it manually, usually by bicycle pedals.

Because the little subs aren't pressurized, and water flows through them freely, both operators breathe through scuba gear.

The hatches must work smoothly so the contestants can get out quickly in case of trouble, and each sub must tow a buoy so it can be identified quickly from the surface.

Some people might prefer to be on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, rather than cramped offshore in a tight space 20 feet beneath the water. But the creators of the yellow submarine would have it no other way.

"It's great," says Mr. Albert. "The concept is similar to human-propelled flight, the early planes used to cross the English Channel. It's something neat to do. We figured, let's give it a try."

Says Tim Cullis, a 25-year-old electronics engineer who helped design the sub: "It's all about trying different approaches, getting people to try different things and [making] them more aware of the new technology and what can be done in the ocean. It gets everybody thinking about things."

The NSWC's sub has plenty of competition.

This year's contest has drawn 50 entries, from Walt Disney World to Cal Tech to a team from Munich, Germany.

The U.S. Naval Academy also has an entry, but the NSWC won't compete directly with it, because teams are separated into academia (the academy) and industry (the NSWC team's division).

The NSWC team is counting on the design of its baby sub. The men came up with the teardrop shape for their entry by "using a computer to figure out which of the standard shapes for wings would give us the smoothest flow [of water] around it," Mr. Cullis says.

The designers figure the fiberglass sub will go 3 knots, although they won't know for sure until they test it in Florida.

That's a "world-class speed," Mr. Cullis says. "Last year's record was about 3.3 knots."

The engineers aren't hoping to win for speed, though. They're aiming for the originality award.

"We're going for innovation with our propulsion system," Mr. Cullis explained.

In the race's three-year history, most entries have been propelled by standard bicycle pedals, with a shaft that spins the prop.

Mr. Cullis says the NSWC engineers designed a hydraulic system, "a unique approach. We actually pump a hydraulic pump when we pedal. Our approach is really strange. We decided to go for a totally different approach from anybody else."

The race is organized by the H. A. Perry Foundation and Florida Atlantic University. The race's official goals are to expand engineering methods and promote and test new materials.

"It's definitely an experience," says Mr. Cullis. "I've learned a lot about organization, teamwork, how to [work with] fiberglass and the difference between design and actually building something. It's been really educational for me."

Last weekend, he and the others headed for Florida to take their mix of imagination, physics, materials and theory into the ocean.

They start with 100-meter time trials, four rounds culminating in the final race.

That ultimate destination will take the NSWC team twice around an oval course for a distance of about 2,625 feet.

If their calculations pay off, they could surface as winners.

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