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Off to the races

UPDATE, June 19, 2013: Northeastern’s solar boat team took first place in the visual presentation, second place in the technical report, and 10th overall at the 2013 Solar Splash competition.

A team of Northeastern students is hoping to make a splash at an annual solar boat competition next week. Well, maybe not too much of a splash, given the goal is to move gracefully through the water.

The students are competing in Solar Splash, billed by its organizers as the world championship of intercollegiate solar boating and being held June 12-16 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Ahead of the annual event, each team designs and constructs a manned solar-powered boat throughout the academic year and then puts its boat to the task in a series of sprint and endurance races at the summer competition. This year, student teams will represent universities across the United States, as well as one from India.

From left, team members Josh Johnson, Sylvia Talbott, and Scott Kilcoyne work on their solar-powered boat at a Charles River dock.

From left, team members Josh Johnson, Sylvia Talbott, and Scott Kilcoyne work on their solar-powered boat at a Charles River dock.

Northeastern team members hail the competition as an opportunity to both tackle engineering challenges and promote clean energy, with each year’s preparations providing opportunities to refine the boat’s design. This year, the team replaced its wooden chair with a lighter, more comfortable plastic seat donated by their fellow Huskies from the Northeastern BAJA team—a club that races all-terrain vehicles—and built a new rudder out of plywood.

The group is also using a set of lighter solar panels designed and constructed by a group of engineering students for its senior capstone project. Two years ago, the team incorporated a drivetrain developed by another capstone team.

“We’ve always had a great relationship working with the capstone program in the College of Engineering,” said Scott Kilcoyne, a rising fifth-year mechanical engineering student.

Five team members—Kilcoyne, Sylvia Talbott, Chris Hickey, Eli Abidor, and Ryan Beach—and their adviser, Richard Whalen, a senior academic specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, will head to Iowa for next week’s competition. Beach reflected on the all the hard work the team puts in ahead of time, whether it’s fixing the drivetrain or figuring out the best way to balance the boat’s weight evenly.

“It’s been great to look at problems that come up and think about how we can build something that solves it or makes it work in a new way,” said Beach, a business major attending the race for the first time this summer.

A team of seniors in the College of Engineering designed and constructed solar panels for the solar-boat team to use in competition. Photo by Brooks Canaday

A team of seniors in the College of Engineering designed and constructed solar panels for the solar-boat team to use in competition. Photo by Brooks Canaday

Hickey, a rising third-year mechanical engineering student, joined the team this year. “I wanted to be a part of something in which I could work with my hands and that related to machining, and I thought the solar boat team was a really cool way to do that,” he said.

Kilcoyne noted that his experiences working on the solar boat have helped him land co-op positions at both iRobot and San Francisco-based Alloy Product Development.

“I’m able to talk about these hands-on, problem-solving experiences,” he explained. “We do the whole process—we design the boat, find the parts, figure out the challenges, and build it, which involves prototyping alongside other engineers to discover solutions.”