It looks like a white bullet, with its sleek lines and pointy beak. Even lying on the ground, it looks fast. But despite its aggressive styling and razor-like wheels, don’t expect Kropelka to go “vroom” – it’s more like a “purr”. But its creators like it that way. The Kropelka team are getting ready to take part in the Shell Eco-Marathon, a racing series with all the technical chops of Formula One, but none of the speed. Unlike the ravenous roaring racers, these vehicles are designed for efficiency. And efficient they are – last year’s winner managed to drive for 3,300 kilometres on just one litre of fuel. Imagine going from Warsaw to Kuwait on a pickle jar’s worth of ethanol.
But don’t imagine commuting to work in a similar vehicle. At least not any time soon. “That would be difficult,” laughed Paweł Radziszewski, who heads the Kropelka team, a group of several dozen students from the Warsaw University of Technology who work in several makeshift workshops scattered around the campus. “First of all, it’s extremely light, at just 100 kilograms. We don’t use any non-essential parts like lights or mirrors. And secondly, the engine’s been designed for efficiency, not power.”
That means that you could probably outrun Kropelka with an effortless trot. But try to keep trotting for 659 kilometres – that’s the current Polish record set by the Warsaw Tech students. Part of the trick is to make the vehicle as light as possible. “We’re using materials that are virtually unheard of in automobile construction, save in a few super-expensive supercars,” said Radziszewski.
“But they are quite common in aviation, like Kevlar or duraluminium. We’re using ceramic bearings that are 10 times more efficient than metal ones. We’re using extremely thin wheels in a tricycle arrangement,” he added.
“And we’ve spent a lot of time perfecting the aerodynamics. At low speed, drag accounts for about 40% of a vehicle’s energy expenditure. The faster you go, the more that matters. And then there’s the engine, designed by one of our colleagues as his master’s thesis and manufactured to our specifications,” he said.
Of course, creating a prototype vehicle is neither easy nor cheap. By its nature, a vehicle like Kropelka will cost about 10 times more than a comparable, mass-produced vehicle.
In this case, SKAP, or the Student Vehicular Aerodynamics Club – the association behind the construction effort – resorted to crowdfunding. Their campaign was successful, with 147% of the asking donations level reached. “We’re up against teams with ten times the money and 30 years of experience in the competition,” said Adrianna Kaźmierczak, who heads SKAP. “They’ve been coming since 1985. I can’t imagine any Polish team competing on the world stage in 1985,” she added.
The Warsaw Tech team isn’t the only one trying to bridge the gap, though. Nine years ago they became the first Polish team to take part in the Shell contest.
Since then, a number of Polish technical universities have created their own teams. In most cases it was the students themselves who drove the efforts home, with the universities offering varying levels of support.
Their motivations were simple: for future engineers nothing beats the challenge, the thrill, and the handson education of an actual, cuttingedge project. “It was never our goal to turn this into a business project,” said Kaźmierczak. “We want to learn. And we’ll never learn more than by working all night on something that will actually run and compete.”
“It’s fun, of course, but it’s also an amazing feeling to witness something like this being created from scratch,” added Radziszewski.
“Plus, most technical courses focus on theory. The result of that is engineering graduates who have never seen a power drill or a sander with their own eyes,” he said.
They’re not alone in that sentiment. Over the last couple of years thousands of Polish students have entered similar, international competitions, facing off against the likes of the US ’s MIT or France’s EPFL: teams supported by world-class universities, with top facilities and, inevitably, incomparable budgets.
They lost, time and time again, to their Western counterparts – but every loss was a win. Their experience and self-confidence grew. Their results improved. And their technical competence soared.
Often it took more than technical knowledge. With funding scarce, most teams had to fight for every penny and work out inventive ways of circumventing problems that other teams could buy their way out of.
And it took moxie. When a Polish team’s Husar rover, meant for a NASA lunar digger competition held at the Kennedy Space Center in 2014, was misplaced by their airline, the team worked to scrounge up spare parts from their competitors and used them to build a replacement vehicle, effectively designing, building, and testing a brand new lunar rover within 48 hours. They didn’t win, but the NASA judges made a point of recognising their effort.
‘We’re using materials that are virtually unheard of in automobile construction, save in a few super-expensive supercars’
Talent in the tank
In time, more and more young Polish engineers have proved they could be more than a match for top teams from the US and Western Europe. The poster boys for those Polish success stories were Białystok University of Technology students whose Magma 2 rover won the University Rover Challenge – an international competition for prototype Mars rovers held in Utah by the Planetary Society. They became a media sensation and Martian robots started popping up at technical institutes across the country.
Last year, Poland hosted its own rover challenge, a licensed version of the US competition. Held in the shadow of a Medieval castle in Chęciny, the event attracted teams from Asia, Africa and South America, but, more interestingly, thousands of spectators – a first for student engineering competitions. Suddenly, engineering became something of a national sport.
“We might be the best in the world at complaining,” said the European Space Foundation’s Łukasz Wilczyński, the man behind the Chęciny competition, “but we also have some of the most talented engineers in the world. The Apollo Program’s lunar rover was designed by a Pole, Mieczysław Bekker. Poles built one of the main instruments for the Rosetta mission. We brought the competition here to increase the visibility of the Polish space industry and to give more young engineers a chance to show off their skills.”
Back at SKAP, the team is putting the finishing touches on Kropelka’s successor. “We’re hoping to hit 1,000 kilometres per litre,” said Radziszewski, the team leader. “Far more than anyone ever managed in Poland.
But the next design is supposed to have far more in common with everyday vehicles. Unlike Kropelka and its fellow prototypes, the cars competing within the Urban Concept class should, in theory, be capable of safely moving down city streets. They must have windscreen wipers, a relatively normal seat, headlights, brake lights – all the things thrown out of prototype class vehicles as dead weight. Oh, and they must have a trunk big enough for a briefcase. They’re still a long way from your regular Fords or Fiats, but they look less like bicycles and more like real, tiny, urban cars.
“The commercialisation of these vehicles is a possibility,” mused Radziszewski. “You can imagine them being used in urban car rental networks, similar to ones that are operational in France.” And, with gasoline prices creeping closer to the 5 złoty mark, it’s hard not to look at Kropelka and its successors and hope that perhaps, one day…