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Human-Powered Foldable Boat, Spring 2016

This spring students at the Lyle School of Engineering endeavored to solve a problem: how can a student who loves kayaking but doesn’t have a car still get off campus and out on the water? From this simple problem came a challenge. Could we design and build a fully-functioning foldable human-powered boat that cost less than $100 in materials and could be carried on a bicycle for the ride from campus to White Rock Lake (a 4 mile ride)?

We started our design process by exploring the nature of boats. We borrowed a kayak and a canoe from SMU’s outdoor recreation program. We analyzed the designs, did some research and took them for a spin in the pool. Several students worked hard to sink the kayak to learn more about buoyancy and boat design.

Back at the Deason Innovation Gym (we call it the DIG), we started research potential designs and materials to build from. Several mechanical engineers calculated buoyancy and figured out the right scale our models needed to be in order to test for the weight of a person.

We eventually landed on folding corrugated plastic. We could purchase 4 feet by 8 feet sheets for $30 a piece -- well under the $100 budget. Luckily, we had some smaller pieces of corrugated plastic lying around the DIG so students got busy experimenting with folding and cutting to understand the affordances of the material.

From there, students started sketching boat designs and folding paper and cardboard to figure out their designs. After iterating, students moved to small pieces of corrugated plastic that were scaled for testing. Once students had a boat folded out of the scaled piece, we headed to the local fountain to test the designs weighted with pieces of steel.

After further working out the kinks (and leaks) students moved on to the larger pieces of corrugated cardboard. As each boat took shape through folding and zip ties, we headed out to the fountain to test with human passengers (wearing life jackets, of course).


From simple, elegant folds to complex designs that integrated plastic sheeting and rope, the students were able to prototype, problem solve, iterate and move toward realizing a boat capable of holding a human while also being cheap, lightweight and portable.