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The first human-powered submarine to cross the Atlantic will use a propulsion system that precisely replicates a dolphin's tail
Biomimetics (“mimicking biology”) is a field that brings biologists and engineers together in a collaborative effort to incorporate nature’s wisdom into product design. Velcro is the most famous example of biomimetics in action. Velcro was developed when a scientist figured out how burrs stuck to dog fur. Today, engineer and machinist, Ted Ciamillo, and Dr. Frank Fish, professor of biology at West Chester University (West Chester, PA) are applying the principles of biomimetics to underwater propulsion. Their goal is to unlock and duplicate the secrets of fast-swimming whales and dolphins.
Ciamillo is known on dry land as the inventor of the best-looking, best-performing bicycle brakes available on the after market. His Zero Gravity brand brakes are sold through his company Ciamillo Components Inc. Underwater propulsion is not a new interest of Ciamillo’s. He’s the guy behind the K-10 Hydrospeeder diver propulsion vehicles used by National Geographic during an expedition to film Great White sharks off the coast of Australia. The biomimetic work is something different, however. In addition to being a way to uncover the secrets of how swimming creatures move so seemingly effortlessly, Ciamillo is now incorporating the findings into the propulsion system of a human-powered submarine in which he will cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The ocean crossing goes by the name The SubHuman Project. The term not only humorously and concisely describes the physical attributes of this great adventure. It also hints at some of its more conceptual and serious potential. Ciamillo is planning on, for all intents and purposes, becoming a sea creature, returning to the primordial soup from which all sub-humans crawled. He will spend a good deal of time observing and understanding some of the sea’s most humble and least understood creatures – plankton – the bedrock of the ocean’s food chain and a major processor of carbon dioxide.
The development of the submarine began with the design of its most critical component, the propulsion system, which was inspired by biomimetics work done at MIT on flapping foils. What Ciamillo envisioned was a system he could pedal like a recumbent bicycle, with his energy translated into the up and down motions of a monofin, similar to the graceful action of a dolphin’s tail. The next step was a call to Dr. Fish, who specializes in swimming morphology of whales and dolphins. “I wanted actual geometry from real animals,” Ciamillo explains. Dr. Fish provided him with the physical geometry of a spinner dolphin’s fluke in the form of CAT scan data. “It was pages and pages of x, y and z coordinates,” Ciamillo says.
He entered the coordinates into Solid Edge®. Working from one tip of the tail to the other, he used the x, y and z locations to build slices every one hundred-thousandths of an inch. This process took about a day and a half. Then, Ciamillo used the software’s lofted protrusion feature, which averaged the points between the slices and connected the cross sections he had created from the CAT scan data. “Once I had that solid model, I exported it as an IGES file and imported it into CAM software,” Ciamillo says. “I used the surfacing feature in the CAM package and then applied a CNC tool path for a mold.” He cast a rubber piece that precisely duplicates the dolphin’s fin. This piece attaches to the foot propulsion system in the sub.
Ciamillo was familiar with Solid Edge, having used it previously to design bicycle brakes and cranksets. He had upgraded from 2D Cadkey several years ago, choosing Solid Edge over SolidWorks and AutoCAD. “Solid Edge was intuitive,” he says. “Once you’ve figured out the layout, you know where other features are located, and I like that. Other programs didn’t have that same intuitive feel for me.”
The visualization provided by Solid Edge is particularly helpful in Ciamillo’s kind of creative product design. “It’s perfect for machinists like me who work with small parts,” he says. “When you’re working with a metal you’re familiar with, the excellent 3D visualization of the finished part lets you know before you do any machining whether it will be strong enough. On drawings you don’t get that feel. You only come to that realization after you’ve cut metal. It’s nice to be able to evaluate a part very quickly just by looking at it.”
Solid Edge’s ease of use has also been important. “One of the biggest reasons we’re successful with the brake is that people love how it looks,” says Ciamillo. “I did a lot of finessing of the design by working with it on the screen. With Solid Edge, you have the ability to perfect the aesthetics of a design.”
For the SubHuman project, Ciamillo is also using the assembly modeling functionality of Solid Edge as he finalizes the design of the submarine. The project is on schedule for a departure from Cabo Verde (off the western coast of Africa). Ciamillo’s route will go from there to the West Indies in the Caribbean – an underwater journey of 2,300 miles.
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Ciamillo Propulsion Inc. is a pioneer in the field of biomimetic propulsion.
"With Solid Edge, you have the ability to perfect the aesthetics of a design. Solid Edge is perfect for machinists like me who work with small parts."
Ciamillo Components Inc./Ciamillo Propulsion Inc.
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