Observation is key

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As engineers we are sometimes tasked with conducting an assessment and providing recommendations regarding a situation we are not directly familiar with. And as professionals with good training, insight and experience, our recommended solutions can often help to resolve the issue at hand. But is it an optimal solution?

I have had a significant amount of technical experience in designing, developing and operating off-road vehicles, but last summer I attended an extreme off-road competition just outside Moscow, Russia, called Motive Gear Challenge, that helped me relearn the lesson that, though physics is constant around the world, a particular combination of environment, conditions and available resources can be totally unique.
I’ve been to a variety of competitive events but this Motive Gear Challenge was different from what I had seen before and the solutions vehicle builders applied were genuinely intriguing. The race consisted of four laps around a 5km obstacle course, to be completed in a maximum time of four hours. The competing vehicles ranged from Soviet-era 4×4 utility vehicles to Suzukis, Toyotas, Jeep Cherokees and Wranglers.
The drivers weren’t allowed to preview the course, meaning their specific knowledge was minimized. The start of the race was similar to a motorcycle motorcross start where all vehicles started abreast and raced to the first corner. However, the first ‘corner’ was a severe obstacle with room for three vehicles at most. And it was here where the fun really started.

The first vehicles got stuck and the winch-man was required to go out to do his duty. This was when unique engineering solutions become apparent. With no nearby trees, aluminum plow-style boat anchors came out and were hauled up ahead of the vehicles to set the winch line. The vehicles didn’t have a winch in the front, just in the rear to minimize weight. The front fairlead was served by a tube passing along the center of the chassis with the line inside. This meant one winch but two solutions – one line out the front and a doubled line with a pulley block for the rear. Meanwhile, everybody was jockeying for position, squeezing each other’s space and preventing other vehicles from taking running approaches at the obstacle. It made for great entertainment! And that was just the first obstacle.

Farther into the lap, a deep water ford challenged the operators and vehicles. And by deep, I mean deeper than a driver’s chest. Again, this made for yet more spectator fun. I walked from one obstacle to the next as the vehicles worked their way along. In the ford, some vehicles sank immediately and others floated for a while. The engines had roof-high snorkels and most were mechanical diesels not dependent on electrics, though there were still electrics in the form of alternators, starters, lights and winches. The controls for these devices were on the roofs of the vehicles, which were hopefully the last to get submerged. Axles, drivetrains and components were all pressurized to help keep water out.

Other obstacles consisted of wet forest and bogs, log crossings and steep descents where, once committed, the vehicles slid uncontrollably to the bottom if not winched down. It’s obvious that a premium was placed on radiator protection, ground clearance, low tire forces and traction. Home-brewed central tire inflation systems were common and combined with the pressurization systems to minimize mechanisms.

To me, it seemed like people were competing in a foreign environment, imbuing a “you race what you have” attitude. However, as I researched further, I learned this kind of terrain was actually not far off some of the operating environments experienced out there.

I came away from Motive Gear Challenge with a new-found appreciation and healthy respect for the challenges of off-road travel in Russia. It also reminded me that seeing a new challenge for yourself provides a much better understanding of it and can help suggest a more optimal solution.

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