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A previous UW sub (photo UWHPS)
A previous University of Washington sub (photo UWHPS)

When classes wrap up for the day, students working on the Human Powered Submarine Team at the University of Washington don’t cease their studies. They head to the lab for more work.

Their objective: Build a human-powered submarine in time for a competition in Bethesda, Md., this June.

(Image UWHPS)

The International Submarine Races are a yearly competition in which the University of Washington has competed regularly since it began in 1989. The team, once a small squad of about 10 students and a few specialists, has now blossomed into a group of more than 70 undergraduates. Some are heavily involved while others contribute specialized knowledge.

Members of the UW submarine team spend an average of about six hours a week working on the sub on campus or from home. It’s an extensive, months-long process: The team started designing last July and hopes to begin testing in the water by mid-March.

Last year's UW sub (photo UWHPS)
Last year’s UW sub (photo UWHPS)

Over the years, the process has led to underwater innovation. For example, the UW team has implemented an electric joystick for steering instead of a control system based on physical wires. It’s one of only two teams to successfully add this electrical-engineering aspect to a mainly mechanical-engineering project.

Then there’s the matter of piloting the seven-and-a-half-foot human-powered submarine. The shoulder width for its single passenger is a maximum of 16 inches.

Sam Albertson has been a member on the UW team for more than a year. He joined because he wanted to work on projects outside of the normal engineering major. The huge project provides an outlet for creativity, hands-on work and a challenge that won’t come from sitting in a classroom.

“It gets kind of boring when you’re just taking classes and not actually doing any engineering,” Albertson said.

Albertson may get an opportunity to do more than actual engineering, however, as his shoulders are the maximum size allowable for the cockpit. He may be the team’s pilot.

To imagine what “piloting” here means: You crunch your upper body inward to take as little space as possible. You focus your lower body on a pedaling motion (similar to riding a bicycle). You keep your head up and your hands on the joystick to steer. You breathe through scuba gear. And you practice this cramped position in Puget Sound when water temperatures hover between 40 and 50 degrees.

The UW Human Powered Submarine Team (photo UWHPS)
The UW Human Powered Submarine Team (photo UWHPS)

As one of two lead captains for UW’s crew of submarine builders, Bentley Altizer knows how far the effort has come. As the sub team has grown, Altizer’s role has switched from overseeing the project to delegating management roles.

“It took me a solid month to learn how to manage this amount of people,” Altizer said. “Suddenly there’s things on the sub happening that I don’t know about, but they’re wonderful things.”

Altizer works with companies, the university and anyone else who wants to help fund the team. For now, he’s the only person dealing with the marketing and fundraising in addition to the standard submarine work expected of all team members. Last year, only six students made the trip to the competition since they had to fund it themselves, so the hope this year is for more money and more interest in the field of submersibles.

The other team captain, Harlin Wood, is lead on propulsion and helps Altizer oversee the group. “There’s a lot you’ve got to think about — getting the right pressure, making sure all the forces work out. It’s an interesting project; not a lot of people do that for engineering,” Wood said in an interview during a competition last year.

The 2015 UW sub's hull (photo Bentley Altizer)
The 2015 UW sub’s hull (photo Bentley Altizer)

When the submarine is complete, testing is successful and the sub has been put into the water multiple times, the competition racing follows. The Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) – Carderock Division hosts about 30 teams from around the world as they vie for the title of fastest human-powered sub — all racing in a 40-foot wide by 20-foot deep course over one kilometer long.

The students from the University of Washington hope the thousands of hours will lead them to a championship vastly different from the world of athletics but no less demanding. And maybe allow the UW to break some submarine records.

“We have a school record of 5.6 knots,” Altizer said, “And we think we can beat that.”

Shane McMahon is a student in the UW NewsLab program.

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