Want to travel at the speed of sound? Elon Musk does and he’s engaging student teams around the world to design a new form of transportation vehicle capable of traveling that fast. Naturally MIT students were quick to respond and, in fact, won the first design round.
The Hyperloop Pod Competition focuses on the design of a pod, a prototype vehicle that will travel inside the Hyperloop track—an air-evacuated above-ground tube intended to connect major cities. At least that’s the vision that Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been advancing since 2013.
The MIT Hyperloop team entered Design Weekend, the first stage of judging, in late January at Texas A&M feeling confident and came away on top—their design for the pod was named best overall design out of the more than 100 teams.
“It’s important to us that we perform well in this competition both to represent MIT and to have the opportunity to contribute to what could be the future of transportation,” says team captain Philippe Kirschen, a master’s student in aeronautics and astronautics. “The thought that technology we are developing now could be part of a full-scale Hyperloop one day is tremendously exciting.”
The MIT Hyperloop pod is focused on three key technologies, high-speed, low-drag levitation, lateral control, and fail-safe emergency braking. Chris Merian, chief engineer and master’s student in mechanical engineering, showed a panel of industry experts and faculty advisors the effectiveness of their design through CAD drawings and specifications, simulations, cost of build, and timeline. Kirschen says that their team’s focus and commitment to design a pod that is safe, scalable, and feasible is what won the judges over and, specifically, their method of levitation—electrodynamic suspension.
Although Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team has chosen a different way to keep it off the ground. “We chose electrodynamic levitation because it is massively simpler and more scalable,” says Merian.
Greg Monahan, levitation lead and master’s student in mechanical engineering, says that their decision to use electrodynamic suspension came after exploring several methods of levitation. “It’s entirely passive so we can design a permanent magnet array, stick it to the bottom, and use the motion of the pusher to generate our own lift so we don’t have to come up with complex control systems.” Monahan said that once they chose the levitation method, they did a lot of simulation and parametric studies to determine the best design for their system—settling on a design that set them apart in the end. “We had one of the lowest drag levitation systems,” says Monahan.
The team—which includes 25 students from aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management—will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at the SpaceX headquarters in California for the final Competition Weekend in June.