This story originally ran in the winter 2020 edition of Triton Magazine.
San Diego, Calif., Jan. 29, 2020 --Student engineering clubs push the limits and their vehicles—here’s the fastest, deepest and highest-flying out there.
TRITON RACING, Est. 1997
Custom-made and built from scratch, these Formula One-style race cars are designed, manufactured and driven entirely by undergrads. They’re no slouch either—110 horsepower brings these hot rods from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds. And while professional racers can cost millions, these students do it with roughly $50,000, thanks to the support of sponsors.
|Triton Racing members show off their speed machine with advisors Carlos Coimbra and Rob Shanahan (front, from left) and Albert P. Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering (center).|
About 35 students each year, split between five subsystems—Aerodynamics, Chassis, Electrical, Powertrain and Suspension.
Over the past two decades, the team has built 14 cars. For their 2019 car, the team decreased the wheel diameter, went with a narrower track width between the two tires and built a lower-slung chassis. Their car weighed 50 pounds less than previous machines, and had a lower center of gravity, just 11 inches off the ground—a lean, mean speed machine.
The Formula Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) engineering design competition tests cars for acceleration, braking, speed (a 1-mile autocross race) and endurance (a 14-mile course). Of the 90+ universities that compete, many teams don’t make it to the endurance challenge, and only 30 percent of those actually complete it.
Triton Racing zoomed into eighth place out of 80 teams in the 2017 and 2018 competitions, making them the top-performing SAE team in the state of California.
Nadia Casper, Triton Racing president: “It’s always a matter of making sure our five subsystems work together properly, functionally and efficiently to create a race car that is fast, lightweight and can handle corners.”
“Over four years on the team, I’ve gained technical, manufacturing and leadership skills, and learned everything from design software to welding and machining. And the leadership skills, of course—I would have never learned so much in a class.”
It’s not for the claustrophobic: Imagine donning an oxygen mask, squeezing into a flooded capsule barely bigger than your body and pedaling your heart out through an underwater racecourse. For the 20-plus students involved in the human-powered submarine (HPS) competition, this is what they live for every year.
|Students test with their submarine, Vaquita, in Canyonview Pool on campus.|
About two dozen students divided into four subteams: Propulsion, Steering, Human- Submarine Interface and Simulations (analyses of mechanical parts for efficiency). Last year, they tripled the size of the team, with four more scuba-certified students able to pilot the craft.
With a fiberglass hull, the 10-foot sub weighs 130 pounds out of water and about 1,400 pounds fully flooded. Depending on the propulsion method, the subs usually max out at about 4 knots, or roughly 4.5 miles an hour. Squeezed inside are motor boxes, a drive train with foot pedals, waterproofed electronics for steering (using a Wii joystick!) and the foreboding “deadman switch” that releases a buoy and escape hatch for emergencies.
|Student members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) pose with Vaquita, the submarine they built in 2018 and raced at the European International Submarine Races in England.|
Tritons are mainstays at the annual U.S. International Submarine Races in Maryland, and in 2018 qualified for the European International Submarine Races in England. The competitions involve a 100-meter straightaway test for speed, while a slalom course through buoys tests how the steering and propulsion systems interact.
In 2000, their sub named “Subsonic” broke the world speed record for a one-person non-propeller submarine—3.47 knots.
Students spend nine months designing and building the sub, and have especially excelled in the non-propeller category. They’ve experimented with the side-to-side motion of a tuna tail, and the up-and-down motion of a dolphin—which earned the “Most Unusual Design” award in 2018. Their next goal is to develop autonomous steering, so the submarine can control its own pitch, leaving the pilot to focus on pedaling.
Alexander Westra, former team president: “Ensuring knowledge gets passed down to new generations of submariners. It’s easy for the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t to disappear as members graduate. We combat this by keeping record of significant events and placing a huge emphasis on teaching new members everything we know.”
“Shortcuts are often detrimental. Overly ambitious deadlines lead to rushed production that sometimes needs to be completely redone. Being meticulous and doing it the right way often takes longer, but at least you don’t have to do it twice!”
|Triton RoboSub's autonomous submarine|
The newest student org to venture underwater is Triton RoboSub, with their debut submersible, Ra, (a nod to the university’s Sun God statue). Ra is a stout 35 pounds of wires, circuits, motors and cameras fully waterproofed and mounted to a carriage. It can steer and wayfind itself to designated spots thanks to it’s object-detection algorithm—a hungry one at that. The team fed Ra over 20,000 images of its target—an underwater gate—at all different angles so it would doubtlessly know where it’s going.
At their first international competition last year, the Triton team made it to the semifinals and are now aiming for a spot in the top three. “We're also tripling our team size from last year,” says the team’s inaugural president. Patrick Paxson. “We want to expose as many people as possible to the opportunities and challenges associated with underwater robotics.”
|The Concrete Canoe team.|
Sounds impossible, but for 17 years, Tritons have designed concrete canoes that not only float, but take four rowers through slalom and sprint races. The 20-foot long, 260-pound canoe is both lightweight and structurally sound. How so? “We use Styrofoam and expanded glass aggregates, in contrast to the sand or rock that is used in industry,” says Eden Wong, a structural engineering student and former president of the group.
The team competes in a new canoe each year at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pacific Southwest Conference, completing multiple men’s, women’s and co-ed courses often in a matter of seconds. In 2017, the team came in fourth place out of 18 entrants, and rode their 2018 canoe, Cosmos,” into 2nd place overall. Only one place to go from there!
Make no mistake—this is rocket science. The team that brought you the first collegiate 3-D printed rocket engine is back at it, aiming high and staying on the cutting edge of aerospace trends. This means new engine designs (aerospike, anyone?), using different types of fuel propellants and, of course, always pushing that vertical limit.
|SEDS team members pose with mentor and sponsor Dan Hendricks (far left) of Open Source Maker Labs, and the Vulcan I rocket, the first successful undergraduate-built rocket powered by a 3-D printed engine.|
More than 60 students, spanning majors from electrical engineering to business. Specialty teams have focused on new endeavors, such as creating a monopropellant system (just one fuel, as opposed to bi-propellant, which combines the fuel with an oxidizer) and testing an aerospike engine, which channels the exhaust in a more efficient shape than typical bell-shaped engines.
For a rocket launch, the team works with three main components: the fuselage, or rocket body; the engine; and Colossus, their static-fire test stand.
Top to bottom, the 21-foot Vulcan-II rocket fuselage starts with a nose cone holding all the electronics, such as a pressure sensor and GPS, followed by a sleek aluminum casing that houses the fuel and plumbing to get it down to the engine. The engine, Ignus-II (left), was 3-D printed from nickel-chromium alloy. It measures only 8 inches in diameter, but can thrust the rocket skyward with up to 800 pounds of force.
The engines are tested on Colossus, a homemade mobile hot-fire test stand that allows the students to put their engines through the full process of a launch without having to sacrifice a rocket should anything go awry. The team also offers use of Colossus to other universities, in order to promote collegiate space research among other students.
In 2018, the Friends of Amateur Rocketry and the Mars Society (FAR-MARS) promised a $50,000 prize for the first collegiate team to send a bi-propellant liquid-fueled rocket closest to 45,000 feet, with a minimum of 30,000 feet. This altitude has been reached using solid fuel, but never with liquid, which is more combustible and dangerous.
So far no university organization has managed to reach that height, but this year, the Triton SEDS team will once again venture out to their launch site in the Mojave Desert to try.
In 2013, UC San Diego’s SEDS group was the first collegiate team to successfully test a 3-D printed rocket engine with their Tri-D model, a 7-inch-tall engine made of cobalt chromium that could thrust with 250 pounds of force. SEDS’s subsequent printed engines, Ignus-I and II, can thrust with more than three times that force. Such hands-on experience in 3-D printing with metal helped launch the careers of alumni Alex Finch ’15 and Deepak Atyam ’15, who went on to found the company Tri-D Dynamics soon after graduation.
Surya Vohra, current SEDS president: “SEDS is a great hands-on complement to the Jacobs School curriculum: a challenging but supportive environment where you can translate classroom concepts to actual aerospace settings. You get your hands dirty with real hardware from the minute you join the team and you never stop growing—as an engineer, leader and person.”
Jacobs School of Engineering
Jacobs School of Engineering