Engineering Students Persevere in Boat Race
August 13, 2021
Neil St. Clair, Daniel Erdogan and Larry Price almost didn't make it into the water.
After a monthlong frenzy of building an electric boat - and creatively using whatever parts they could find, including a golf cart motor - the Old Dominion University students hit a snag during the recent Promoting Electric Propulsion (PEP) for Small Craft competition in Baltimore.
The morning of the competition, they accidentally shorted the motor controller, solenoid and resistor at their hotel.
St. Clair, a recent mechanical engineering technology graduate; Erdogan, a mechanical engineering junior; and Price, a senior in electrical engineering technology, frantically called all the places around Baltimore that carried golf cart parts.
"We decided to bring it to the competition and just display it," St. Clair said. They set the boat up and watched the other teams prepare for the race.
Then they got a call. A store 30 minutes away had the parts.
They raced to the store, picked up the motor controller and solenoid - but the store did not have the resistor.
"After sharing our story with them, they actually went into the back, stripped a resistor out of a cart and retrofitted it to make sure that it would work for ours," St. Clair said.
That's when they got another lucky break.
A storm delayed the competition by an hour, which bought them the time to put everything back together.
They finished the repairs minutes before the start of the race.
"It was a stressful time, but just the pure joy I felt after fixing the boat, you can't explain it," Erdogan said. "I jumped 6 feet into the air."
The competition was tough. The University of Kentucky and Princeton University had spent months on their boats. The University of Michigan entered two full teams: Michigan Solar Sea and Michigan E-Jetski.
Of 11 entrants, only the two Michigan teams, Kentucky and ODU made it into the water.
St. Clair drove ODU's boat, reaching a top speed of 8 mph. The ODU team came in fourth, seconds behind the E-Jetski team.
American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) officials lauded the team's persistence and determination.
"It's not easy to produce an electric-powered craft in the best conditions and these students went above and beyond to get it done with the time and resources available," said Mike Briscoe, ASNE educator in residence, noting the heavy rainstorm in the hour before the race. "Neil was braving the elements to hold the tarp around Daniel as he worked to install the final weatherproof parts needed to make the race a success."
The Promoting Electric Propulsion (PEP) for Small Craft competition is hosted by the ASNE in conjunction with the Multi-Agency Craft Conference. The race, according to the PEP website, is "an educational and competitive program to foster the development of electric boats in the United States."
It is open to manned or unmanned vessels operating with an electric propulsion system. Contestants are tasked with completing five 1-mile laps with an ideal top speed of 25 mph.
College teams received up to $7,000 to purchase supplies to design and build the boat from ASNE.
ODU became involved in the competition through ODU's ASNE student chapter and as part of the senior design project in Vukica Jovanović's mechanical engineering technology class. Batten College faculty Anthony Dean, Ashish Tamhane, Orlando Ayala and Murat Kuzlu also assisted the team in various aspects of the boat design and realization.
The first ODU ASNE PEP team entered the competition in November 2019 with hopes of racing in spring of 2020. A combination of eight mechanical engineering technology and electrical engineering technology students, including St. Clair and Price, spent the next two semesters creating models of electric boats with simulation and modeling software.
When the University closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, the students lost access to the engineering and building facilities. They quickly transitioned from building a physical boat to creating its "digital twin," a hypothetical model, which was designed with a 14-foot hull and powered by a series of high-power batteries and a motor. In theory, it would have reached up to 25 mph.
Their goal was to have all the specifications ready for the next group, who would build the boat and actually compete.
The class finished and students moved on.
St. Clair, however, wasn't ready to let go.
"I had been calling, checking in, once a month, once every two months, for the past year, just trying to see if we could get working on this," he said.
Meanwhile, Jovanović introduced St. Clair to Erdogan, who had boat-building experience during high school at Virginia Beach Public Schools' Advanced Technology Center.
Finally, St. Clair got the call.
"They called us up about a month before the competition, and said, 'Hey, do you think you can get it together in time?' Being engineers, of course we said yes," St. Clair said.
They brought back Price to help with the electrical aspects.
They purchased a used 14-foot hull, which came with a free trailer. The motor, however, required creative thinking.
They ended up using the motor from a stripped-down golf cart owned by Erdogan's father, Ibrahim Erdogan, a naval-industry machinist.
"Essentially, it's a 14-foot V-shaped aluminum hull with four Titan series 12-volt marine batteries hooked up to a 3.3-horsepower golf cart motor that was then mated to a 9.9-horsepower gas motor that we had stripped down," St. Clair explained.
"That is the most exciting part of being an engineer, to immerse yourself in a challenging project, give it all that you have and work hard so that your ideas can have a physical prototype that works," Jovanović said.
The team's stick-to-it attitude didn't end with the race.
On the way home, they caught a flat tire on the trailer and spent two hours on the side of the road. "Every store we called laughed at us for asking for a 9-inch wheel," said St. Clair, who added that they were eventually able to buy one at a Tractor Supply Company store.
Next year, St. Clair, president of ODU's ASNE chapter, will hand the reins to Erdogan. They already have plans for next year's competition.
"This year, considering our time restraints, and our money restraints, we did the best we could do," St. Clair said. "And we know that if we had equal footing as them, we would have beaten them."