How student lead projects can help companies develop new products

© 2024 Kistler and Swiss Solar Boat team

© 2024 Kistler and Swiss Solar Boat team

EPFL’s Swiss Solar Boat team to test exciting new sensing technology with Swiss system and sensor leader Kistler via KNOVA, EPFL’s Open Innovation Platform.

The Swiss Solar Boat team has a vision – the creation of a new, sustainable world. As part of this vision, they built a boat with a unique solar design and state-of-the-art technologies, showcasing in a concrete way the skills that students had acquired during their EPFL courses.

The team currently pilots the Dahu, inspired by a prao, a canoe-like boat used in the South Pacific, but with added hydrofoils to significantly reduce drag at high speeds. Whilst the Dahu has proven itself in competitions its weak point has been endurance, so the Swiss Solar Boat project is turning to green hydrogen as an additional energy carrier.

With a goal to develop a new hydrogen-solar hybrid boat by 2025, the Dahu will be used as a test platform, integrating a fuel cell to allow the team to gain experience in hydrogen propulsion. As the prototype is developed it is key to monitor the changes in properties of the hull to ensure top performance and maximise its lifetime, so the team was looking for a partner. This is where KNOVA and Kistler come in.

Breaking down innovation barriers

Kistler, joined KNOVA in 2022 with some specific goals, including visibility on campus to students and to work with EPFL labs developing technology from the ground up that could potentially be integrated into the company’s products. The Swiss Solar Boat project has been the perfect fit for a partnership.

“We’re thrilled to be working on the next iteration of the Swiss Solar Boat as it develops the use of hydrogen as a range extender,” said Dr Gerrit Schatte, Project Manager at Kistler’s Innovation Lab. “We will be providing a new shape sensing technology that allows the measurement of various quantities via optical methods and this is a great opportunity for us to apply our sensors in the field that is still a lab kind of environment,” he continued.

Testing new shape sensing technology

A first step will be testing the new sensors in the EPFL Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites before designing a measuring system for the new boat that brings those fibers into the structure in the least invasive way, either woven into the structure or laminated on top or inside of the hull. A student semester project already investigated this design aspect.

“Imagine the hydrofoils of the Swiss Solar Boat when it is foiling with various stresses, constantly changing shape. This new technology gives us the potential to get a real time, very high sampling rate representation of its deformation in-situ. The ultimate goal is to bring this measuring system on board and then to get a live signal for the shape of the foil and that doesn't exist yet,” explained Schatte. “Working on this project under the KNOVA Platform allows us to make mistakes, try new approaches and explore certain configurations of the sensors and boat with the students. Working together we can take the learnings to other applications or go to market with what we develop.”

© 2024 Kistler

From the lab to going live

From an engineering perspective, the cutting-edge sensors should provide new insights that go beyond laboratory bending tests and other data in order to optimize future design, and Schatte believes the technology has applications for all lightweight structures that experience varying degrees of stress during operation.

“Steel and aluminum, for example, are isotropic, and as materials we can easily model how they behave as they are quite homogeneous, but new composite, lightweight structures are a different case. Lamination, the different orientations of fibers and layers of bonding material to hold them together make them more complex and harder to model. From wind turbine blades or helicopter rotors to lightweight boats in general, these alternative materials could benefit from this monitoring in relation to safety relevant topics or simply for fatigue.”

“The KNOVA Platform was the door opener to our involvement in this project. It has removed the entry barriers and gave us easy access to this student group that we have found very, very good to work with, there’s an EPFL headspace that is very unique.” Schatte concluded. In a world that’s constantly changing at pace, this approach has worked for Kistler.


KNOVA is the Open Innovation Platform by the Vice Presidency of Innovation (VPI) at EPFL that supports companies leveraging university research ecosystem to nurture their innovation, while also providing startups and researchers in the EPFL ecosystem with the chance to make a global impact with their technologies.
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