Feb. 1, 2017

Students test Hyperloop pod at SpaceX competition

Hyperloop Competition
The frame, brakes and air supply system for the vehicle that Cornell students helped engineer for Hyperloop Competition Weekend.

Looking like a vehicle from the set of a sci-fi movie, an 18-foot-long pod engineered by a team that included Cornell students was put to the test during Hyperloop Competition Weekend, Jan. 27-30, at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Hyperloop is a high-speed transportation concept conceived by entrepreneur Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, with the goal of sending a levitating passenger pod zipping through a near-vacuum tube at speeds of more than 700 mph. Such velocity could send travelers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in as little as 30 minutes.

More modest speeds were on display during the competition, in which 27 teams competed for a chance to test their fully functional prototype pods inside SpaceX’s nearly mile-long vacuum tube. The tube is 6 feet in diameter and encases an aluminum track designed to guide the pods as they levitate using either magnetics or compressed air.

Among the teams was OpenLoop, a 60-member crew that included students from Cornell, Princeton University, Harvey Mudd College, the University of Michigan, Northeastern University and the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The team’s pod uses scuba tanks to force compressed air downward, allowing it to float on a cushion of air above the track. Its air bearings, frame, suspension and controls are all hidden under a carbon-fiber shell. The $150,000 pod was supported by contributions from member universities and corporate sponsors.

“It was unbelievable,” said Nick Parker ’18 of Hyperloop Competition Weekend. The computer science major founded the team after the competition was first announced in 2015. “We had to make a lot of last-minute fixes, so even flying out for the weekend I had pretty low hopes for how well it would actually work, and it seemed like we were in big trouble. But it works, and it works really well. It was a very happy surprise that things came together the way they did.”

The pod passed the competition’s 100-point checklist and scored well in design, but experienced a malfunction during a preliminary trial inside a small test chamber. “It didn’t levitate in vacuum because there were all sorts of trouble with our electric system,” explained Parker. “SpaceX was basically giving half as much current as they needed to some of our valves, but outside of vacuum, our levitation was one of the best there. It has really low drag, and it’s pretty smooth.”

Due to unforeseen time constraints, only three pods were selected for a full test run inside the Hyperloop tube. Technical University of Munich clocked the fastest time with its pod traveling about 55 mph.

While OpenLoop’s pod was not among the three finalists, Cornell students may still get a chance to rocket a vessel through the first-of-its-kind tube. A second installment of the competition has been announced for later this summer, and a number of students are consulting with Parker to design a new Cornell-only pod with OpenLoop’s now going out of commission.

“I think it’s just going to get better and better every year,” said Musk, addressing the teams and those watching a live-stream of the competition. “I think it’s ultimately going to be something that inspires the world and results in real transportation technology that helps people’s lives and makes them better.”

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.