Student Engineers Have The Right Stuff

Could SpaceX’s Hyperloop pod competitions lead to a breakthrough?

TJ McCue | Refine Digital

At an unknown point in the future, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles could take approximately 30 minutes – an amazing feat of mass transportation – if Elon Musk is right about his Hyperloop concept.

That’s compared to the current five-plus hours by car or two hours on an airplane, both hugely optimistic figures not considering traffic jams or time spent traveling to, from or in airports.

In 2013, Musk released a 57-page PDF on the Hyperloop, his concept for high-speed ground transport. To accelerate the development of a functional prototype, SpaceX announced a Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2015 to design and build a half-scale Hyperloop pod.

A rendering of bLoop’s pod. Courtesy bLoop.

The first competition, which focused on the hardware build stage of the project, took place in January 2017 and had more than 1,200 entries, which it narrowed to feature prototypes from 27 student and nonstudent teams.

Most of the designs are futuristic, as one would expect: Modes of transport from The Jetsons – in which characters traveled in pneumatic tubes – are a good visualization reference for the Hyperloop.

Two massive tubes running from San Francisco to Los Angeles would carry passengers and possibly vehicles. The tubes maintain a low-pressure environment, and the pods are intended to glide over magnets, air or some new technology to move through the tubes.

Among the teams that competed intensely during the January event is Berkeley Loop, known as bLoop, made up of about 40 UC Berkeley students, primarily undergrads. To compete, the team overcame obstacles that would similarly affect a professional, nonstudent team.

“Our biggest challenges stem from our lack of experience in a lot of different areas,” says Tyler Chen, bLoop project manager and co-lead of acceleration and braking. “I know our design is super ambitious, and a lot of the stuff that we tried, design-wise, everything checks out. But when you actually go in and physically try to build it, there are a lot of things that, just purely from experience, you realize, ‘Oh, that’s actually harder than I thought to build.’”

Team HyperLift’s pod. Courtesy HyperLift.

Team HyperLift – made up of students from St. John’s School in Houston, Texas – was the only high school team admitted into the competition, and it placed ninth in design and construction. Still, the team faced some unexpected challenges.

“During testing in January, we ran into an anomaly where we blew three air regulators when trying to levitate on our air bearings,” says Andrew Awad, HyperLift founder and team leader.

“After two grueling days, we tested our improved air-regulation system and were the first team to ever levitate in the vacuum chamber – for which we received an honorable mention for performance and operations.”

The second competition takes place today through Sunday at SpaceX’s Hyperloop test track in Hawthorne, California. The contest is open only to student teams, both new and those from the first competition interested in refining their designs. This time, the 25 teams selected will focus on one goal: maximum speed.

The second Hyperloop competition test pods will reach 130 meters per second, or 290 miles per hour (not the ultimate goal of near-Mach speeds of 760 miles per hour). January’s bout featured innovative pod designs and concepts. This time teams will compete with fully functional units that will run on the one-mile test track.

A Fusion 360 rendering of AZLoop’s pod. Courtesy AZLoop.

For AZLoop – comprising more than 100 students from Arizona State University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Northern Arizona University – forming the team was based initially on more than just design or speed.

Lynne Nethken, team president of AZLoop, says that she was driven to join Hyperloop by asking herself, “How will we keep people safe when moving them at speeds of 700-plus miles per hour?”

After graduating, she and her co-lead, Joshua Kosar, plan to commercialize Hyperloop transportation in Arizona and are hoping to provide a means for passengers to travel from Phoenix to San Diego or Los Angeles in 30 minutes.

Although AZLoop’s original team from Competition I didn’t make the final cut, they have grown in experience, numbers and funding.

“As we head to SpaceX as finalists for Competition II, having the fastest pod and not crashing are essential, of course,” Nethken says.

“With team members at many different schools, we found that we could only achieve this design using a cloud-based CAD system like Autodesk Fusion 360. It is not simple to share CAD files across universities and with so many people, so it allowed us to tweak designs on the fly before we sent something to the CNC, waterjet or 3D printer. When fabricating the mold for our shell, we could watch the toolpath in Fusion 360 before sending it to the ShopBot, which saved us from making costly mistakes during fabrication.”

Even though velocity is the top priority in this competition, most teams are aiming for elegant utility in addition to speed. The only team from Japan, Keio Alpha, includes students from the Graduate School of System Design and Management at Keio University.

“Apart from upgrading the components of the pod, we want to focus on the life-cycle properties of the pod, including how to assemble, transport, ship and disassemble,” says Daniel Daum, Keio Alpha Team cocaptain. “The way to maintain the pod is as important as pod engineering to ensure the broken parts can be fixed and the pod can adapt to environmental changes.”

A rendering of Keio Alpha’s pod. Courtesy Keio Alpha.

Keio Alpha’s pod won accolades from SpaceX because it looked like it could be transported in luggage – and in fact, that’s exactly how these innovative team members brought the unit to LAX in Los Angeles.

In the first competition, Keio Alpha placed 10th in design and construction.

“We understand the enormous potential we have with our pod design and aim for achieving the top-three position this time,” Daum says.

Likewise, the University of Washington’s team, UW Hyperloop, placed sixth for design and construction in January and is readying for Hyperloop Pod Competition II.

“Our team is fairly small, 24 members, and we like to keep it that way,” says Mitchell Frimodt, UW Hyperloop director and braking lead. “We like to give each individual more responsibility because when you challenge members with more responsibility and commitment, they struggle at first, but they tend to fill the role given to them and learn quickly. And, ultimately, that is what this team is about – grinding through problems, challenging ourselves and learning how to take an idea and make it reality.”

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Impossible is not a word these teams comprehend.

Overcoming these challenges is at the heart of what Musk is hoping to build. Although some deem Musk’s vision of high-speed pods unlikely, impossible or too expensive to build, many are already on board and investing millions to make it happen.

The students involved in this movement frequently end their communications on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag: #BreakAPod. Impossible is not a word these teams comprehend.

This article first appeared on Redshift and was republished with permission.

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TJ McCue is Managing Partner at Refine Digital.

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