Mechanical engineering students from Bath University represented Britain at the International Submarine Races held in Europe’s largest freshwater tank: QinetiQ’s Ocean Basin, Gosport, last month.
The eight-man team who designed, built and piloted the submarine entitled Minerva in the event, was competing against teams from the USA and the eventual victors École de Technologie Supérieure from Canada. In addition to third place, the Bath team also won the prize for best presentation – in written, poster and oral form throughout the competition.
Dealing with unforeseen hitches
The Bath team’s achievements are all the more pertinent given that it had to circumvent a few unforeseen hitches. Team leader and project manager Oli Fairfax came up with a new control system for placing the submarine in the water during his final year project.
“I designed a dual control panel using an electronic waterproof joystick, a new gearbox and electric motors at the stern,” Fairfax explains.
“With the traditional cable system you have to physically pull the rudders which puts added strain on the pilot who also has to peddle the sub underwater wearing scuba diving gear. The new system makes it easier and more accurate to control when placing it in the water. We’d also planned on a wireless controlled diving system so we could control depth automatically.
“But despite that most things worked, due to time constraints we didn’t quite finish some of the waterproofing so we ended up reverting to the cable system which caused a few problems – like the rudder breaking in one of the races!”
BURSTing with excitement
Jenny Blowers, one of the two female team members was involved in the latter stages of the Minerva’s construction. Her end of year research programme included managing a group business and design project to produce an autonomous submarine - as part of the Bath University Racing Submarine Team (BURST) group.
“My involvement was really in the last two weeks when the team were putting the sub together,” explains Blowers. “I procured the transparent plastic nose-cone which is a very important component on the manoeuvrability course as you need to see where are going. I made a new hatch too – as a couple of the guys ‘misplaced’ the original one in the canal in Bath!”
Piloting the sub
Blowers was also one of the team’s pilots in the competition, steering the craft through an endurance course comprising two slalom circuits the size of a football pitch to test the submarine’s agility and durability.
“I piloted the last race which was a lot of fun,” says Blowers. “Essentially all the competitors had the same problems to solve but everyone did it in such a different way. The winning team had a small confined vessel that they’d built around one particular person – whereas we chose pilots by who could actually fit in our craft which was the largest in the competition.”
A great opportunity for knowledge transfer
Fairfax and Blowers, who both graduated at the beginning of July, agree that aside from the prizes the most important factor of the competition was the transfer of knowledge.
“It was a really friendly atmosphere and even though the top two teams were effectively rivals, we showed each other our submarines and swapped information,” says Fairfax, who has just scored a position in design engineering and project management at McLaren Automotive.
“I also think competing definitely helped me get this job,” he adds. “I could talk about something both interesting and challenging because it was all underwater and there was quite a lot of pressure.”
Blowers, who starts an off-shore job with BP in September, is keen to pass on her experiences to the next submarine team.
“I already knew a lot of the team before I started and their experiences from last year’s race,” she says. “I’d like to do the same for the next crew. Knowing how other competitors managed to fit similar control systems as ours in smaller spaces would help a future team from Bath build a much smaller craft that would operate a lot more efficiently in the water.”