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Defying Gravity
To compete in a hoverally, first design and build a hovercraft
By Robert Emro

Floating on air in a hovercraft feels a lot like sledding on fluffy snow, says senior Mike Grobecker, leader of the Hovercats. It drives a little like a bumper car, he adds. "Because there's no way to slow down, you make a bunch of rapid turns, switching back and forth. It's very responsive."

That's the easy part.

Getting their project off the ground, literally, took the Hovercats eight months of labor. But the idea of building a hovercraft began much earlier, when Grobecker and teammate Ben Buchinski '06 were freshmen and received a class assignment to design something using a software program called ProEngineer. By last September, they had gathered 11 recruits who were interested in not only building UNH's first-ever hovercraft but also racing it at the Hoverclub of America's annual "hoverally" in Chillicothe, Ohio, in June. By April, many were working on the craft 20 hours a week; the group had also raised nearly its entire $17,500 budget through fund-raising events and sponsorships.

On April 19, the team spent eight hours testing everything from the engine to the rubber "skirts" that trap the cushion of air. Their first floatation test ended abruptly when, in their enthusiasm, half the team threw up their hands for high-fives—which, it turns out, is the signal to kill the engine. Two weeks later, the hovercraft flew for 30 seconds. "The way the testing works, we just drive it until we break something," Grobecker says cheerfully. By early May, the craft flew for three hours. Grobecker believes the hovercraft may exceed their goal of carrying two team members at speeds up to 50 mph while hovering six inches above land or water.

Electrical engineering major Katelyn Palmer '06 is designing airplane-style trim control for the nose, which could give the Hovercats an edge in aerodynamics and the ability to clear obstacles. "When we're out in industry, we're going to be working with other types of engineers, and that's what we're doing here," says Grobecker, a mechanical engineering major. With teamwork and persistence, the Hovercats have taken a concept and turned it into a conveyance. In Ohio, they'll see just how far they can fly.

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