Hyperloop—the futuristic transportation concept comprised of sealed pods hurtling through air-tight tunnels at speeds that smash the sound barrier—could someday ferry people the 400-plus miles between Chicago and Minneapolis in as few as 20 minutes.
And students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have designed and built a super-sleek teardrop-shaped pod for the fourth annual SpaceX Hyperloop Competition—a contest that pits teams from universities around the world against each other to spark innovation in the transportation space.
The majority undergraduate team from UW-Madison, known collectively as Badgerloop, revealed their latest entry into the competition at a public unveiling ceremony at the on-campus Memorial Union event center on April 17, 2019, at 7:00 p.m.
At the event, community members were able to inspect firsthand the pod’s strong but lightweight carbon-fiber outer shell and see its improved direct-drive mechanical propulsion system, which the team hopes will accelerate Badgerloop to another strong showing in the competition’s fourth year.
“I’m excited to see this thing work,” says Badgerloop President Mark Swartz, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “We’ve learned so much from the previous competitions.”
Badgerloop has sent a pod to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California during every hyperloop competition since the contest’s inception in 2016. Each year, during the week leading up to the main event, teams from around the world put their designs through a rigorous series of technical and safety tests, vying for the opportunity to send pods down a one-mile hyperloop test-track in the Southern California desert.
The UW-Madison team has consistently impressed the judges, taking home back-to-back innovation awards for their designs during the contest’s first two years.
This year, the Badgerloop students have their eyes on the top prize. Although the rules of the contest evolved since its beginnings, the parameters of the competition haven’t changed since their last entry in 2018: Every team’s entry must accelerate to top speed under its own power and the fastest pod wins.
In such a stiff competition, our team is focusing on building an operational pod such that we can be one of the few teams to potentially win the competition with a speed upwards of 100 miles per hour,” says Swartz.
With lessons from previous contests, the team has been hard at work for several months assembling their latest pod, taking advantages of on-campus fabrication facilities like the TEAMLab and the College of Engineering Makerspace to weld, shape, solder, machine and 3D print various parts.
“Our electrical system is already months ahead of what we accomplished by this point last year,” says Badgerloop Operations Director Emma Krueger, a senior majoring in biology and sociology.
That electrical system was a major challenge for the team in years prior. Because hyperloop pods traverse through airless tunnels, advanced electronic instruments and circuits must be housed in a strictly vacuum-sealed chamber—tiny leaks mean big problems.
This year, the team improved upon their previous designs with a machine-smoothed aluminum plate forming the base of their system, with a carbon-fiber half-dome flattened against the metal surface to contain the sensitive components in an air-tight seal.
“In many ways, we’ve iterated and enhanced our designs from last year,” says Badgerloop Industry Relations Lead Jack Swanson, a sophomore majoring in engineering mechanics and astronautics. “That process has a lot of exciting implications for what this pod can do.”
It’s the combination of hands-on learning plus perseverance that allows the students to discover new solutions while they bring their concept through the entire design-and-build-process. And those are skills that the students will take with them long after they leave the UW-Madison campus.
“Badgerloop is such a unique experience and leadership opportunity for undergraduate students to run a business,” says Krueger. “We’ve learned how to manage a project, work with a wide variety of people and stay calm when things get chaotic.”
And even though things likely will get chaotic—especially during the days leading up to the competition in July—the students are confident about their chances.
“This year we’ve had a shift in mindset,” says Swartz, “We’re not just designing something cool, we’re building something that works.”
Check out photos from the unveiling in the slideshow:
Author: Sam Million-Weaver