Solar boat team makes ‘splash’ at intercollegiate competition

Members of Northeastern’s Solar Boat club had planned to rebuild in 2014, foregoing a chance to win now in exchange for future success.

Turns out, the future is now: Earlier this month, Northeastern finished second overall and was named the most improved team at the annual Solar Splash competition in Ohio. In 2013, the Northeastern team finished 10th.

“This year was supposed to be a transition year for us,” said first-year club president Christopher Hickey, E’16, whose team also won a sprint race, finished second in the slalom, and placed third in visual display. “It was great we ended up being so successful because it showed that our predecessors left the club in good shape.”

Solar Splash began in 1994 and is billed by organizers as the world championship of intercollegiate solar/electric boating.

Northeastern’s student-run engineering club designs, builds, and races a 19-foot long solar-powered boat, giving members a chance to apply skills they have learned on co-op and in the classroom.

This year, the team worked to build a boat that could withstand each and every event at Solar Splash, which wasn’t the case at last year’s competition. “Our goal was to not have parts of the boat break on us,” said club alumnus Scott Kilcoyne, E’14, who worked with the team at the competition. “I’d say we definitely succeeded.”

One redesign required the club members to make the boat’s five solar panels, rather than buying them. This marked the second time in the club’s five-year history that the students built the solar panels themselves. Not only are the custom panels lighter and more robust, Kilcoyne explained, but they also boost performance.

“The competition rules state that teams are allowed 528 watts of energy for home-built panels and 480 watts of energy for commercially built panels,” he explained. “They’re trying to encourage teams to build their own.”

Hickey noted that this year’s results were even more impressive because of the club’s limited practice time. Since the Charles River was frozen into May, the team members could do little to test their single-person boat, which can reach a speed of 25 miles per hour.

“We only had about a month to test the boat with all of our updates,” Hickey said, which included new pontoons to keep the boat stable and above water.

The club’s 10 active members work year-round, tinkering and fine-tuning, but they sometimes solicit outside help. In the past they have utilized other engineering students’ capstone projects for design ideas; for example, the club’s first iteration of the handmade solar panels derived from a capstone project.

“It’s good to get a fresh bit of knowledge and expertise that the club might not have,” Kilcoyne said.