Teams of students from around the world gathered in the California desert to find out whose designs for an ultrafast, airtight transportation pod would make the fastest trip down a mile-long test track during the fourth annual SpaceX Hyperloop competition, held July 21, 2019, at the company’s headquarters southwest of Los Angeles.
Among the 21 teams was Bagerloop, a majority-undergraduate crew from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The students built a sleek, teardrop-shaped pod, with a carbon-fiber composite outer shell surrounding a direct-drive propulsion system. It’s Wisconsin’s contribution to one of society’s important problems: high-speed, energy-efficient mass transportation.
“We are proud because we worked hard to build the best pod we could with the time we had and the people we had,” says Badgerloop operations director Emma Krueger. “The competition was stiff and we tried to make the most of our time with our advisors and responsible engineers.”
Despite competition that included teams comprised of graduate students who worked on their pods full time as a focus of their research, Badgerloop impressed the judges with its ingenuity and perseverance.
Participation in the competition is an invaluable opportunity for students to learn by doing, applying their skills and tenacity to realize their designs and then put the product through a real-world engineering review process.
Badgerloop has consistently been one of the top U.S. teams at the competition, taking home back-to-back innovation awards during the first two contests and being invited to make an additional presentation to SpaceX leadership for the past two years.
The rules of the competition are deceptively simple: The fastest hyperloop pod wins. But before teams are cleared to load their crafts into the mile-long, vacuum-sealed test track, they need to complete a rigorous battery of tests, overseen by SpaceX experts.
“Being at SpaceX among engineers who work for one of the most elite aerospace companies in the world was an unparalleled experience and everyone on the team learned so much this week,” says Krueger.
Testing was no small matter, given that the pods are expected to hurtle through an airless tunnel at nearly half the speed of sound.
The direct-drive motor that propels the Badgerloop pod has a maximum speed of 7,000 revolutions per minute and its braking system needs to produce nearly 3Gs of deceleration. That’s about a third of the force that a fighter pilot experiences in a steep vertical dive, enough to make many civilians black out.
Despite working nearly nonstop during the official time allotted for testing, Badgerloop students experienced a last-minute problem in the air compressor for the pod’s braking system, and that prevented the team from obtaining test-track clearance.
Even though the students identified the glitch and devised a solution, they ran out of time to prove that the system was functional to the SpaceX evaluators.
“This last week, we were definitely held back by logistical issues,” says Krueger. “While some of these problems are unavoidable, it certainly made us strategize better and always think through the best option at the time.”
Only four teams finished all the tests: Technical University of Munich, Delft Hyperloop, EPFL Hyperloop and Swissloop. The No. 1 team, Technical University of Munich, bested its winning velocity from the 2018 competition by 4 mph, achieving a top speed of 288 mph.
Although Badgerloop did not have the opportunity to see its pod in motion, the lessons the students learned will be invaluable as they look forward to the 2020 contest. In 2020, the competition will be even more challenging as the test track length will extend to 10 kilometers and the route will feature a curve, according to a tweet by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
And Badgerloop is not only ready to tackle the challenge of the 2020 competition, but team members will apply the lessons they learned as they embark on varied academic and professional pursuits. Although many of the students are engineers, Badgerloop welcomes participants from all across the UW-Madison campus, representing more than 20 majors.
“One member ‘joked’ that he had learned more this week than throughout his entire academic career,” says Krueger. “While that may not technically be true, our engineers and non-engineers alike learn and grow from experiences like this.”
Multimedia, including images and videos from the competition are available at: https://uwmadison.app.box.com/s/xqhv0v2p0skddprkz58gzgvijepqzju1
Contacts for media: Kevin Chunkel, (715) 869-7849, firstname.lastname@example.org; Emma Krueger, (920) 765-3367, email@example.com
Author: Sam Million-Weaver