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Solar boat team makes ‘splash’ at intercollegiate competition

June 26, 2014

Mem­bers of Northeastern’s Solar Boat club had planned to rebuild in 2014, fore­going a chance to win now in exchange for future success.

Turns out, the future is now: Ear­lier this month, North­eastern fin­ished second overall and was named the most improved team at the annual Solar Splash com­pe­ti­tion in Ohio. In 2013, the North­eastern team fin­ished 10th.

“This year was sup­posed to be a tran­si­tion year for us,” said first-​​year club pres­i­dent Christo­pher Hickey, E’16, whose team also won a sprint race, fin­ished second in the slalom, and placed third in visual dis­play. “It was great we ended up being so suc­cessful because it showed that our pre­de­ces­sors left the club in good shape.”

Solar Splash began in 1994 and is billed by orga­nizers as the world cham­pi­onship of inter­col­le­giate solar/​electric boating.

Northeastern’s student-​​run engi­neering club designs, builds, and races a 19-​​foot long solar-​​powered boat, giving mem­bers a chance to apply skills they have learned on co-​​op and in the classroom.

This year, the team worked to build a boat that could with­stand each and every event at Solar Splash, which wasn’t the case at last year’s com­pe­ti­tion. “Our goal was to not have parts of the boat break on us,” said club alumnus Scott Kil­coyne, E’14, who worked with the team at the com­pe­ti­tion. “I’d say we def­i­nitely succeeded.”

One redesign required the club mem­bers to make the boat’s five solar panels, rather than buying them. This marked the second time in the club’s five-​​year his­tory that the stu­dents built the solar panels them­selves. Not only are the custom panels lighter and more robust, Kil­coyne explained, but they also boost performance.

“The com­pe­ti­tion rules state that teams are allowed 528 watts of energy for home-​​built panels and 480 watts of energy for com­mer­cially built panels,” he explained. “They’re trying to encourage teams to build their own.”

Hickey noted that this year’s results were even more impres­sive because of the club’s lim­ited prac­tice time. Since the Charles River was frozen into May, the team mem­bers could do little to test their single-​​person boat, which can reach a speed of 25 miles per hour.

“We only had about a month to test the boat with all of our updates,” Hickey said, which included new pon­toons to keep the boat stable and above water.

The club’s 10 active mem­bers work year-​​round, tin­kering and fine-​​tuning, but they some­times solicit out­side help. In the past they have uti­lized other engi­neering stu­dents’ cap­stone projects for design ideas; for example, the club’s first iter­a­tion of the hand­made solar panels derived from a cap­stone project.

“It’s good to get a fresh bit of knowl­edge and exper­tise that the club might not have,” Kil­coyne said.