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Engineering Might, Leg Power Put to Test

Education: Nine universities compete to build the fastest human-powered subs.


ESCONDIDO — Picture a drag race with a whole lot of drag and very little race.

Take away the cheering crowd, roaring engines, adoring girls and teenage angst.

Replace it with dozens of engineers in the making and a few of their parents, the smell of chlorine instead of exhaust, watercraft instead of motor craft, and human power instead of horsepower.

Then submerge the scene in a 1.5-million-gallon pool of murky greenish-gray water.

And they're off. Maybe.

Nine teams of students from universities across the country and Canada started the first of a three-day competition here Friday to determine which of their handmade submarines--big enough to hold one or two people--could propel across a 300-foot tank the fastest.

One at a time, they'll keep running the length of the pool in hopes of beating the world record of 7.19 knots, if they can move at all. The University of Washington's vessel, for example, hadn't made a single run by midafternoon Friday. A problem with buoyancy got in the way. Race-ending crashes into the sides or bottom of the pool are common too.

This year's main rivalry at the Human Powered Submarine Contest matches UC San Diego against the University of Quebec. In 2000, UC San Diego set the world record in the non-propeller division--using a wing that flapped like a whale's tail--at 3.47 knots. Quebec holds the record set last year in the propelled division.

The Canadians are racing Omer4, a purple, metallic torpedo-shaped sub with shark-like fins. They've been modifying the capsule, which holds three computers, a bike crank for pedaling and joystick for steering, for two years, said Domonic Goulet, 23, a mechanical engineering major.

The San Diegans have pinned their hopes on the Inviscid, a term that means "no friction under water."

The lime-green machine, elliptically shaped to cut down on drag, is made of fiberglass and aluminum and weighs about 80 pounds.

"Once you do enough research you get the same thing [as the other competitors], as small and sleek as you can make it," said Daniel Smith, 21, a mechanical engineering major at UC San Diego.

The speed trials take place in a tank at Offshore Model Basin in Escondido. The pool simulates waves, wind and currents on model ships, barges and oil-drilling platforms to analyze how the life-size versions, usually 50 times bigger, would fare in the ocean.

The human-powered subs are about the length of a compact car and travel about as fast as one in rush hour traffic. Top speed in Friday's races hit 4.3 knots or about 5 miles per hour. A nuclear-powered sub can travel about five times faster.

The teams work on their projects with the determination of Internet entrepreneurs, spending long hours after class in what can turn into a two- or three-year project.

Some subs cost as much as $60,000 to build and transport to the competition.

Dan Bedore, an engineer from La Mesa and the event's chairman, said the work the students put into their subs, analyzing the mechanics of hundreds of parts, working with software, giving presentations and raising money, is the kind of experience they can't get in the classroom.

"We don't really care about submarine technology. We care about making engineers," Bedore said.

The students are all certified scuba divers. One or two of them per team can be submerged with their scuba gear in the submarines. The divers propel the subs, which fill up with water, like a bicycle. They pedal their way across the pool. In one case, a team in this year's contest used mechanics similar to a stair-stepper to power its sub.

Yellow caution tape and strings of lights on the floor of the 15-foot-deep pool guide the subs. Underwater speakers call out the race starts.

Underwater cameras catch the races, as the subs are barely visible from the surface. Students watching have to get word from divers to keep up with the action, or attempt to make out the hazy images on a video monitor split into four screens.

In addition to Washington, Quebec and UC San Diego, Millersville University of Pennsylvania, San Diego State University, Texas A&M, the University of British Columbia, Virginia Tech and the University of Montreal are participating.

The speed trials, which run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, are open to the public.

It's the second time Escondido has hosted the races. The competition alternates between the West and East coasts.

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