MIT engineers win Hyperloop pod competition, will test prototype in mid-2016

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The winners of SpaceX's Hyperloop Pod Competition celebrate after learning on their victory(Credit: Texas A&M University)

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The Hyperloop's journey from audacious concept to a functional, superfast transport system went up a gear over the weekend with more than 115 engineering teams descending on Texas A&M University to present passenger capsule designs in SpaceX's Hyperloop Pod Competition. An MIT team took out first place in the contest, and along with 22 other top designs it will now build human-scale prototypes to test out at SpaceX HQ later in the year.

SpaceX itself is not developing the Hyperloop, first imagined by Elon Musk in a 2013 white paper, but it is very much encouraging anyone and everyone to pursue the idea on their own. The futuristic transport solution would see passenger pods zip through low-friction tubes at more than 700 mph (1,126 km/h), and could potentially shuttle people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour.

A couple of startups have since taken up the challenge and begun work on their own test tracks and vehicles, but the weekend's competition saw engineering students from 20 different countries roll into Texas with detailed pod designs in tow. Judged by a panel of representatives from SpaceX, Tesla and Texas A&M, with Musk also in attendance, the submissions were assessed on a variety of criteria, including the innovation and detail of their designs, full Hyperloop system applicability, economics and feasibility.

The MIT team's winning design details a 250 kg (551 lb) passenger pod with an exterior crafted from carbon fiber and polycarbonate sheets. With a passive magnetic levitation system comprising 20 neodymium magnets, the pod is designed to maintain a 15 mm (0.6 in) levitation gap above the track.

The team says with the lowest available tube pressure available of 140 Pa, the pod should be accelerated at 2.4 G and have 2 N aerodynamic drag when traveling at 110 m/s. The design also features a fail-safe braking system that automatically brings the pod to a halt should the actuators or computers fail, and low speed drive wheels that can move the pod forwards or backwards at 1 m/s in an emergency situation.

It's an achievement any engineer would gladly add to their CV, but taking out the Best Overall Design Award doesn't guarantee the MIT team extra sway over the makeup of the final Hyperloop pod. All the knowledge gained through the competition will remain open source in a bid to flesh out the most appropriate design.

The winners will be joined by 22 other teams, including groups from the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Waterloo, in the next stage of the competition. This will involve building a working prototype to test on a one-mile (1.6 km) track at SpaceX headquarters in California this coming US summer.

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