Yeah, It’s Been Quiet Here

On this blog, but not for the teams.

Solar car is in Beaver Falls, PA for scrutineering and Formula Sun Grand Prix, prelude to American Solar Challenge (ASC) cross-country race starting July 30th.

ASC 2016 looks to be the first time the resurgent Miners have raced cross-county since 2010, and it’s been a painful drought. Things are going well in Pennsylvania, and barring catastrophic failure, S&T will start the nearly 2,000 mile trip though some of America’s finest national parks and monuments, looping from Cleveland, south through southern Illinois and Missouri, then turning NW to the Badlands of South Dakota.

There’s two (three?) ways to follow S&T’s run to the hills. AmericanSolar, and on Facebook under Missouri S&T Solar Car Team and the S&T Student Design and Experiential Learning Center (SDELC)

Follow us on Facebook. It’s OK, really. Facebook isn’t just for kids anymore. FB is where all the cool older folks hang out these days.

Temperatures Affect More Than The Drivers and Crews

Bored engineers will find something/anything to build, take apart, modify or measure. Yesterday’s favorite device was an IR temp sensor that was reporting concrete surface temps of 142 degrees F, with actual air temps around 103.
Ambient temps affect team strategy, but electric FSAE teams have been sweating more than their petroleum-powered cousins because high-tech batteries don’t like the heat. DC-powered cars have temp sensors all through their systems, monitors designed to shut down the car should battery temps get too high. E-teams LOVE mild days and the Miners have caught some luck from overnight showers. It’s still cloudy at the endurance course green flag so S&T’s Artemis’ power system should operate more efficiently. E-cars will run right after lunch, followed by the faster combustion machines.
DSC_1229 (1)
Formula electric scoring? Eight in design out of some twenty teams and top five* in cost, skidpad, autocross and acceleration!
Their endurance race strategy is conservative. They’ve scoped out the top teams and see potential weaknesses in each, so the Miners’ mantra is ”Don’t overdrive, just finish!”
*Only five electric teams passed all inspections. Some fifteen more trailed S&T in design execution/safety. But make no mistake, this team is thrilled! They met they goal of qualifying and running dynamic events. The icing on the cake would be to finish endurance.

Formula Electric: “We’re Gonna Run!”

Codemeister Nathan Loika made that all-important decree late this afternoon. S&T’s Artemis sailed through eTech inspection today with but two small changes to make, protecting high-voltage wires and confirming a ground connection. DSC_0150Megan Ratterree took care of the former and the latter will necessitate pulling a few things off the car to assuage the judges in the morning.

Nathan also commented that the daunting eTech inspections seemed much easier this year. We’re sure that’s his perspective but it may also be the result of days of intensive learning during last year’s eTech and a more experienced set of teammates. Either way (or both) the team is on the verge of hitting the competition track for the first time in the team’s 3-year history.
DSC_0002On the mechanical side everything was fine until the Miners weighed the car. When Artemis rolled off the scale it pushed both ramps outward, revealing drastically excessive toe-in that had gone unnoticed. That was corrected well before the sun left the sky.

But there are the variables. Temps are said to top 100 tomorrow, and fall just short of that during dynamic testing (racing) the next two days. Batteries do not do well when they overheat and the combustion engines don’t much like it either, so drivers and crews alike will have to develop a strategy to deal with it. So far the strategy is confined to staying hydrated, seeking shade at every opportunity, and sitting in front of industrial-sized box fans.

Down to the Sea in Ships. And Rovers, Cars And Bridges.

Even Spring tornadoes don’t create the level of chaos that student design teams can spread across campus and beyond.
This week had Mars Rover introducing Zenith to an appreciative campus crowd while Baja SAE was mudding their way through the Tennessee design competition. Early reports indicate the Miners were still running at the end of the four-hour endurance race. First time in the team’s 10-year off-road history they’ve been waved through under the checkered flag!
DSC_7790Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe are practicing like crazy, while finalizing plans for hosting this week’s 16-school engineering conference at the same. The same one in which they compete.
Steel bridge is under particular strain because their original design failed just four weeks before the competition. They’ve rebuilt from scratch and are in full-bore construction practice mode.
Canoe has resurrected “Alice,” the well-remembered highlight of St Pat’s celebrations of decades passed. The “Legend of Alice” is seldom mentioned in polite (mixed) company, so it’s reservedDSC_8148betterfor knowing smiles among older engineers. They’ve been practicing paddle team-work under some cold and windy conditions, and so far it seems the womens’ sprint team might even beat DSC_8100their male counterparts. The team also has the monumental task of dropping 25 weighted buoys all over Little Prairie Lake for Saturday’s proof-of-concept races. Wind and rain won’t make it easy.

Redbuds and Rocket Fuel

DSC_7389Springtime in the Ozarks, when it seems all operations move outdoors.

When you have important business to conduct the ideal setting might be a remote woodland glade, well away from civilization. DSC_7484Better yet, by the side of a small, pristine stream, far from prying eyes, because you never know when you might have to put out a chemical fire. If, however, you hear banjo music drifting on a southerly breeze move north quickly. You’re too close to Arkansas.

Keep reading. This is not about (shame on you!) moonshine or meth.

Years ago the Miners’ Advanced Aero Vehicle Group expanded into rocketry, and the HPER (High Power Engineered Rocket Design Team) gradually moved into more and more complex projects that get expensive, fast.

You may remember last June’s biblical (three+ days wandering the desert) effort to find their 25,000-foot missile that disappeared into the beautiful Utah skies. When they finally recovered it there wasn’t much left to re-use for 2016. Nuttin’, actually, so it was start again from scratch.

The Miners decided to move all manufacturing operations in house. They’ve made molds for the composite nosecones and machined (and threaded) their own motor housings, but their biggest leap of technological faith was to set up their own rocket propellant facility.

Budgets be damned, they wanted the best regardless of cost. Their new assembly building is a DSC_7328 shiny new (to us) surplus military container about 8 feet long that set them back about $500. Their workbench is a plastic folding table and the sophisticated power blenders consist of stainless steel salad bowls paired with carefully-balanced, manually-operated wooden spoons. The custom-built oven, a plywood boxDSC_7462 lined with insulation batts and spray foam, is outfitted with heat lamps and has a cute little servo- and string-operated vent system to keep temps steady.

They “cook” the brownie-like mix after carefully mixing the propellant in the open air so that should a problem occur, people can run in any direction they choose.

They’ve been mixing and testing small batches, or grains in rocket parlance, with good results, and Friday it was time to move to full-sized motors. Chief rocket scientist Jill Davis did the precise mixing, and once ready DSC_7725the group rolled the “batter” into little pellets that looked a lot like, uh, deer droppings. Each of the pellets was carefully dropped into a cardboard tube where Matt Fogle carefully compressed their handiwork into a uniform consistency.

It’s this tube that, once the mix is fully cured, they’ll test fire late this week. Once confident of the results they’ll start producing more propellant grains; the actual motors they’ll take back to Utah.

Why all the effort? Pride of ownership, and they save a LOT of money over commercially-produced motors.

Steel Driving Women

SUN_6066Spring Break means little to the women of S&T’s Steel Bridge Design Team. They’d sooner be cutting and forming I-beams.

April Fool’s day is ignored because there’s serious work at hand. Sarah Jemison, Miranda (Randi) Cory, and the men who work for them must design, build and test a new weight-bearing bridge in less than a month.

Need more pressure? Randi is helping organize the ASCE Midcontinent Student Conference hosted by Missouri S&T. Better known as the Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe competition, it’s coming to Rolla April 21st-23rd for the first time in nearly twenty years. The Miner bridge and canoe crews have risen to the challenge of juggling jobs, classes, building their projects and managing the entire event. They’re determined to set a hospitality standard that will never be eclipsed, even by those “big” schools.DSC_6578 (1)
Back to emergency bridge design, S&T’s initial structure failed load testing during St Pat’s week, mimicking one school’s designs famous for collapsing under the weight of their own self-importance (according to a K-State wag). For the host school to withdraw from the event would be, uh, embarrassing in the extreme. Miners would never let that happen. DSC_6568They’re taking inspiration from Jermy Jamison’s 2014 winning team by switching to a modified I-beam design. That meant finding the steel FAST, while hammering out design details in late-night meetings and cutting steel with the Design Center’s new five-axis water jet machine.
DSC_5255Both civil engineering-based teams have strong contingents of women. Miranda is the president of the Steel Bridge Team. Concrete Canoe is led by a guy (Justin Turley) but with 53% of the team women, he’s outnumbered. Who, by the way, dominated last year womens’ sprint race.

Mud, Sweat, and Fear

DSC_4334Four days of Texas rain turned today’s flight workshop tents into bogs, swamps, lakes even. Folding chairs were just swallowed by the mud. Some teams simply moved out of the unlit tents just to be able to see what they were doing.

Round #1 of the micro class kicked off the gloomy day, and at first it seemed that some designers of these hand-launched airplane wanna-bes were just throwing them straight into the ground. DSC_4504SUN_5197
Balsa carnage on a terrible scale, and some teams showed some, uh, unorthodox launching strategies, though things got a little better for the regular class. Only one aircraft got uncomfortably close to the spectators, and a small chain-link fence absorbed the impact.
In the advanced class first round the Miners got off to a rough start. A one-two punch of a lower-than-expected engine thrust combined with the plane’s hard left bank when the rudder input called for just the opposite pancaked their new bird DSC_3967 (1)into the soil. Aside from a shattered bulkhead #216 seemed OK but the conservative strategy was to resurrect #216’s dependable prototype and move all the controls and landing gear over. That rebuild time cost them the second round, and with the first-round failure it was urgent to score valid flight points before the day was over.

Their efforts to restore “Holly” (it’s red and green)was easier than feared, as it was mainly a fuselage swap; the wings and electronics were fine. It paid off for the Miners when they SUN_6013found themselves at the front of the line for round #3. The engine behaved, the the airframe responded and they notched a flight result consistent with all their Vichy-area practice runs. Smooth flight, smooth marker drops just inside the scoring circle and a smooth landing.

Odds ‘n ends…

Where do great design ideas come to life? Sometimes, in a bar. At least one of today’s aircraft, the inflatable-winged paean to the dragonfly, is said to have been hatched over who-knows-how-many beers. Fitting perhaps, that the control surfaces resemble a beer mug with the bottom cut off. But it worked, and that’s what counts.

Pigs still can’t fly, but it’s not for lack of trying.

The only twin-engine plane, a geared-down beast from some mining school in the Dakotas, scattered baitfish in all directions when it, uh, splashed down some 100 yards from the runway.

Almost forgot.
A strong contender for “best crash of the day.”


The solar decathlon affordability and marketability scores have just been announced.


We just can’t wait for the architecture scores…

No less a statesman than Anthony McAuliffe could have better described this.


As the point totals among the top four Solar Decathlon teams continue to climb, the percentile differences between each team grow smaller.

Days ago the variations between first and second place, or second or third were calculated to be about 1%. Now that percentage has shrunk to about one half of a percent. Nerve racking, as the event winds down.

S&T has slipped to 3rd place, just a point-and-a-half (or 4/10ths percent) behind Buffalo, but we think the juried (subjective) results, due to be announced in a few hours will return the Miners to their rightful place as best of the best.

Meanwhile, all across campus people have one eye on their work and one eye on the decathlon scores. Kinda like listening quietly to the baseball playoffs at their desks while pretending to work. We’ve heard of that happening on other campuses, but oh, no, not in Rolla.

The lowly Cubs took care of that….

Tracking the Decathlon Scores…

Is like watching a turtle race.

That’s not being critical, just voicing frustration that the top teams are all so close in the scoring. Exciting, yes; stressful, even more so.

Data is collected and compared throughout the event, and as we suspected from watching teams (re)build their homes, it was gonna be Stevens, Missouri S&T, Cal Poly and Buffalo leading the pack. Interesting to note that all four of these spectacular designs are grouped together in one part of the decathlon grounds. Nice neighborhood.

How close is the scoring? Over the last few days the Miners’ lead has been bouncing around from 1, 2, and barely three points ahead of the runner up (was Stevens, now Buffalo). With a current total of the Miners have accrued exactly 1% more points than the second place team, and 2% more than the 3rd place team. Way too close for comfort…

These are trends, that if nothing major goes wrong, should hold up throughout the entire Solar Decathlon.

But. The data only accounts for four of the ten scoring categories. Energy balance probably won’t be announced until the last day, and the subjective hasn’t even taken place. West Virginia’s soaring design and Clemson’s brilliant jigsaw-puzzle haven’t quite turned out to be the design threats we envisioned, but the all-important personal opinion contests could throw things into chaos. We’ve seen it at previous Solar Decathlons, and that’s all we’ll say about the topic.

Meanwhile, keep voting (daily) on the People’s Choice award. Doesn’t count in the official scores, but bragging rights are something to crow about, too.