Students of engineering from universities and organizations across the country and abroad converged at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Maryland, for the 14th biennial International Submarine Races (ISR), June 25-30, 2017.
Human-powered submarines in the shape of everything from a shark to an ice cream cone with all the fixings were raced by 21 participating teams in the 1,886-foot Deep Water Basin, which is just one of the three sections that make up the 3,200-foot-long David Taylor Model Basin building at Carderock.
The ISR has been a premier science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) event for 28 years; it is sponsored by the Foundation for Underwater Research and Education (FURE) and hosted by Carderock, the Office of Naval Research and Program Executive Office Submarines. ISR challenges students to design, build and race a one- or two-person human-powered submarine on an underwater course. Former Carderock commanding officer and current president of FURE, retired Navy Capt. Charles Behrle, said the David Taylor Model Basin has proven to be the perfect environment for the races over the years.
“The first races were held off the coast of Florida in the surf,” Behrle said. “One of our biggest concerns with ISR is the safety for the participants, so when you’re in the surf and the winds pick up and the seas pick up, it makes it more challenging. One of the final races they had down in Florida was almost completely all blacked out because of weather. The Basin came up in planning discussions and the Navy agreed to host the event, which is great because it provides us with a safer indoor facility that can accommodate up to 25 or 30 teams.”
The inaugural race was held in June 1989 at Riviera Beach, Florida, born from a concept developed by the H.A. Perry Foundation and Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Ocean Engineering, before coming to the David Taylor Model Basin in 1994. According to Behrle, the first race in Florida proved very successful, with 19 teams from academic institutions, corporations and independent groups gathered to race their submarines and test their designs.
“This is the event that brings everything together. The participating students have had the classroom, they’ve had the theory and they’ve done the calculations. What ISR adds is the actual human factor as well as the ‘What could go wrong?’ factor,” Behrle said with a laugh. “Sometimes things don’t go the way the numbers say they should; the next step is focusing on how to fix it.
“Some of these teams don’t get into the water until they’re here. So if they’re lucky, they’ve gotten in the water somewhere in an Olympic-size pool somewhere and at least submerged their sub, but some of them show up never having gotten in the water with that particular boat. So there are things that may not go as planned. It may not go as the book said it should, so now they’re into the real world of ‘How do I change it? What do I learn? How do I fix it?’ Some of the teams are extremely well-equipped with respect to the materials and tooling to do that kind of thing on site, some of them less so. What’s always very good to see is the teams help each other out. Yes, it’s a competition and they all want bragging rights, if a team is lacking something or needs something repaired to get into the basin and have a successful run, the other teams hover around and help. Whether it’s providing bodies, materials or expertise, it’s a huge collaborative effort and learning experience for all involved.”
Today, the races have proven an international success, with participating teams from Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands. Universities including the University of Michigan, Virginia Tech, the University of Washington and even some high schools including Sussex County Technical School in Sparta, New Jersey, and Mosley High School in Lynn Haven, Florida, participated in this year’s races. Also participating is an independent group from Accokeek, Maryland, called Kids into Discovering Science, that started as a family affair, grew into mostly home-schooled children and is now flourishing with participants from grade school through college. ISR is open to all institutions or groups that want to participate.
While getting through the underwater obstacle course as quickly as possible might seem like the goal, the fastest time is far from the only facet of ISR. There are 16 judges throughout the week assessing and inspecting the work of the teams including the design, safety and overall process for making improvements on the submarines.
A trophy and $1,000 award sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton is given to the submarine team from any design category that displays the best overall performance, determined by a figure of merit which takes into account the team’s attitude, persistence and resourcefulness. Other award categories include Absolute Speed, Fastest Speed by Category, Innovation, Best Design Outline, Smooth Operator and Best Spirit of the Races.
“You’ll note that with the awards we do a top overall, but then there’s also an innovator award, and we look for innovations in a team’s design. That’s something that we highly seek in what they’re doing because it means they’re thinking outside the box, and it’s a mentality that all great engineers have. We put all those design reports in a compendium, and then we mail each team a disk and make it available on our website, so a fledgling team can see all these reports and get an idea of how to construct theirs, but also get ideas about what’s been tried before.”
The record for top speed in the history of the races for any design is 7.4 knots. According to retired Carderock engineer and long-time volunteer and member of the FURE Board of Directors Dan Dozier, most of the submarines compete in the 5- to 6-knot range, which Dozier said is up significantly from the past. However, as Dozier noted, it is not always about being the fastest.
“Some teams aren’t going for maximum speed, they’re striving to have the best new innovation,” Dozier said. “Propellers are very efficient, but there are a lot of teams that are trying some non-propeller propulsion, for example, using oscillating foils or wagging tails. So it’s not always about going for the world record, it’s about using your imagination, knowledge and skills as an engineer to come up with something new and effective.”
Dozier and Behrle are just two of the 77 volunteers who work to make ISR a success. Behrle said that all of the volunteers are not just contributing the week of the event, a lot of them spend their time throughout the year coordinating with schools, showing up at school cafeterias and contacting university naval architecture programs to join in the races.
Currently, there are more than a dozen engineers working at Carderock that have previously participated ISR. Danielle Kolber and Charlotte George are two past participants and engineers in Carderock’s Center for Innovation in Ship Design who contributed as principal organizers for this year’s races. Behrle said that while ISR is designed to be fun, it has truly become a venue to get students excited about engineering and gives them the experience and encouragement to pursue careers in STEM.
More information about FURE and the ISR
By U.S. Navy Daniel Daglis, NSWC
Provided through DVIDS
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