Stranger than friction: Inside the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition
Elon Musk's proposed Hyperloop system crossed another milestone in January with the very first test runs being performed in a vacuum. This new notch on the belt was part of the Hyperloop Pod Competition, a friendly gathering of teams of engineering students designed to encourage innovation to get the system off the ground sooner. New Atlas caught up with VicHyper, one of 27 teams who converged on SpaceX HQ to pit their pods against each other, to chat about how the competition went and what happens next.
Designed to combine the speed of air travel with the convenience of a railway, the Hyperloop system is built on pods that can blast passengers through vacuum tubes at up to 760 mph (1,223 km/h). Reducing friction is the key to reaching those speeds, and that would be done by levitating the pod off the bottom of the tube, using either magnetism (maglev) or cushions of air (air bearings).
When Musk first described the Hyperloop system in a white paper back in 2013, he specifically pointed out that SpaceX wouldn't be developing the technology. It would, however, support anyone and everyone who wanted to take a swing at it, and to that end the company hosted the Pod Competition, tasking teams of university students with designing the high-speed shuttles and the different systems that might drive them.
Back in November, we sat down with Zac McClelland, the Project Leader of VicHyper, a team of students from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. As one of the teams getting a pod ready for the test tube – and the only group from the Southern Hemisphere – VicHyper's design had already made it through the first round of the competition, held in January 2016, which narrowed the entries down from 124 teams to just 30, of which 27 made it to the SpaceX HQ.
Rather than stretch themselves thin trying to build all the systems a pod calls for, VicHyper focused on a more achievable challenge: developing a braking system that can safely work at high speeds and in a vacuum. For their efforts, the students took home the Braking Subsystem Technical Excellence Award.
For the second leg of the competition kicking off in January 2017, the final 30 groups had to build a functioning prototype to hit the 1-mile-long (1.6 km) test track at SpaceX headquarters in LA. In the lead-up to the event, VicHyper honed its design and in November, finally unveiled the pod to the public. After plenty of late nights and a few test runs on a specially-built track in Melbourne, the team packed up the pod and flew it to the US.
"It was crazy, we had a lot to do after the unveiling to get it ready," McClelland tells New Atlas. "It was just non-stop, there was a lot of all-nighters pulled across the team."
Things didn't slow down once VicHyper's pod arrived on-site at SpaceX. While the competition part of the event was held over the weekend of January 27 to 29, the week before was dedicated to testing and modifying the pods. Before any vehicle was allowed into the vacuum-tube test track, they had to be put through the wringer with a series of checks to ensure they could handle those extreme conditions.
"They had a big screen with this Excel spreadsheet with 95 checks, and you had to check each one off," explains McClelland. "And I think once you got to about 75, you were allowed to get into the main tube and do open-air tests."
As teams made their way through the checklist, their pods were first inspected for safety, before being placed into a stationary vacuum chamber to test that it holds up in a vacuum and that communications work. Next, a pod moves onto the open-air track where, with the help of a pusher vehicle, it's tested for speed and braking. Then, it does a run in the main test tube, with the doors open and no vacuum applied. And finally, if a pod makes it through all of those tests, it's eligible for a run under the vacuum conditions that an up-and-running Hyperloop system would be operating in. Between tests, the engineers were frantically working on their pods in the little tent city that sprang up in the parking lot of SpaceX HQ.
"For us, we were running around like headless chooks just trying to get stuff done," says McClelland. "People were welding stuff together, there were angle grinders, drills. We weren't the only ones that were still building, so many people were flat out doing that. One team I think nearly welded their whole pod together on-site."
One of the main problems the VicHyper team faced during the week was to seal up a pressure vessel around a bundle of electrical wires that needed to be fed out of it, and it proved to be a challenge.
"We put all of our electrical components inside this pressure chamber to keep it at atmosphere, so it wasn't subject to the vacuum, because it plays havoc with the batteries we were using," says McClelland. "And we were getting a bit of leakage with our feed-through wires, so we were working all week trying to fix them, and trying to sort out ways to be able to pressurize it, and test it. We pretty much had it sorted out the last day, but it was just too late."
VicHyper managed to cross 67 tests off the checklist – just shy of the 75 required to get the pod in the main tube – before the testing phase was closed and the competition began. In the end, only three of the 27 teams made it to the final stage and were able to test their vehicles in the vacuum-sealed tube. The problem wasn't so much that the pods weren't up to scratch, but that everyone was racing the clock, and the set up time between tests was longer than participants anticipated.
"Everyone was working towards making it there, everyone was in the same boat as us, in that – except for the few teams that got in – they just ran out of time," says McClelland. "It was taking a long time to do the actual tube runs anyway, from like 8 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night to do five runs. Very first time, you've got to realize it's a monumental task.
"You've got to get your pod in there, and you've got to get the pusher vehicle in there. You've got to close the door, and you've got to vac it all down. It's about half an hour to vac it out, something like that. Then you do your run, and then they've got to do pretty much the same thing at the other end. There's a fair bit to it, I don't know if they expected it to take that long."
The lucky few that got through included teams from Delft University of Technology, the Technical University of Munich, and MIT. Along with the the honor of building the first Hyperloop pods to perform a vacuum tube run, the Delft pod took out the top spot, with the Highest Overall Score and a Design and Construction Award. The top speed went to TU Munich, clocking 58.5 mph (94 km/h), while MIT took third place, nabbing a Safety and Reliability Award.
But in the spirit of Hyperloop, it's not really about "winning." From the outset, Musk released the concept publicly to inspire innovation through friendly competition, and according to McClelland, the whole week was fairly open and collaborative.
"Everyone helped everyone," he says. "It was awesome, people just wanted to help each other. It was such a collaborative effort, people were excited about the future of transportation and what we could do to help. It was just amazing to be involved, and everybody was working hard and probably a bit stressed, but everybody had a smile on their face."
SpaceX plans to run the next phase of the competition in June, with a competition focused solely on maximum speed. This stage is open to new or existing teams, but VicHyper won't be participating, choosing instead to focus on applying the technology back home.
"We'd definitely advise RMIT to go again," says McClelland. "But for ourselves, we've got a lot of interest in a lot of the technology we've already developed, and we want to keep Hyperloop at the forefront of innovation in Australia. So we'll keep going, and keep pushing forward, and see what happens. No point giving up now."
More information: VicHyper