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Battle Mountain drama: engineering students break world record

Institution News Team

The Project Nevada team with Sarah Piercy and the handcycle
The Project Nevada team with Sarah Piercy and the handcycle

A new world record in a human-powered vehicle has been achieved in Nevada thanks in part to a grant from the Institution.

Project Nevada, a team of academics and students from the University of Plymouth, and champion wheelchair racer Sarah Piercy beat the existing women’s arm-powered record by 0.1 mph with a speed of 24.85 mph – but only after some innovative last-minute changes saved the day.

“This challenge was the culmination of a five-year rollercoaster ride. We were all absolutely thrilled when Sarah broke the world record,” said project lead Adam Kyte CEng MIMechE, Lecturer in Mechanical and Marine Engineering. “It has been one of the most fulfilling projects I've had the pleasure of being involved with. The team’s success would not have been possible without the support of organisations such as the Institution, which has enabled students to learn about real-world engineering through the example of handcycle design.”

The Project Nevada students are all Affiliate Members of the Institution. They have been involved in all aspects of the project management, from planning the logistics to finding sponsors willing to supply funds, components and services to a total value of over £20,000.

The Institution backed the students with a Group Project Award of £3452, which funded the majority of their travel costs.  The RAF offered use of the tarmac at RAF St Mawgan for the handcycle testing and flew the vehicle out to Nevada and back. Piercy has completed 10 London Marathons in a racing wheelchair, winning it in 2000.

Project Nevada flew into San Jose late at night and were immediately faced with a night’s camping in a Californian forest to save on accommodation costs. Then most of the team drove seven hours to Battle Mountain, while two members collected the handcycle before joining up.

Intensive work to reassemble, test the vehicle and pass inspections followed and the exacting technical rules of the competition had to be assimilated.

There were massive constraints on all teams as the track, a section of public road, could only be made available for limited time periods. Five days of official runs ensued, though these were often hit by bad weather.

As weather conditions improved, Project Nevada encountered more problems. Sarah was finding it increasingly difficult to grip the pedals tightly enough to deliver sufficient power. They quickly rethought, designing and manufacturing a splinted pedal for Piercy’s left hand. These modifications, along with changes to the wheels to reduce aerodynamic drag, made just enough difference.

On the final day of racing, Piercy clocked her best time of 24.85 mph in the 200m timed section following a 1000m run-up. After an agonising wait for confirmation by race officials, this was confirmed as a women’s handcycle world record.

On achieving her time, Piercy said: “Becoming the handcycle world speed record holder has been the greatest sporting challenge of my life. I would never have believed this could be possible but I owe everything to Adam Kyte and the Plymouth University engineering students who have made this happen. They have been such a wonderful team of people to work with.”

Since it began in 2012, the handcycle project has given almost 500 Plymouth University students a chance to apply their knowledge and skill in aerodynamics, structures, dynamics, electronics and control, composites manufacture, CAD and even thermodynamics. There have been dissertation topics on subjects such as wind tunnel testing, composite manufacturing processes, analysis of steering geometry and studying rider biomechanics. Final year MEng students have optimised various aerodynamic and structural features using Computational Fluid Dynamics and Finite Element Analysis.


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