Arthur Chadwick was a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) when he decided that he and his fellow engineering students needed to enter SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition. “When we sent out an email to all engineers, I received over 130 emails that night. All the students were like ‘Yes, we are totally down to do it.’ I was ecstatic,” he says.
The Hyperloop is a simple, if seemingly futuristic, idea, put forth by Elon Musk just five years ago. Put an electrically powered pod in a long vacuum, make sure it floats—with magnets, probably—and you’ve got a vehicle that can travel free of friction or air resistance. In Musk’s original conception, pods of cargo or people would float from San Francisco to Los Angles at 760 mph, shortening the trip to 35 minutes.
But Musk had other business to attend to, so he made the Hyperloop open source and started the contest. The 2018 competition was the third, and its focus was fairly direct: may the fastest pod win.
Just to enter the contest was a significant feat of engineering
for Chadwick and his team of 50-odd students. To submit a worthy ‘intent to compete’ form, “we had to research some of the technologies we would be using, we had to compile all of our research, and then we had a design package we had to submit to SpaceX,” he says. Then, over the winter, they had to work on the final design package, which included a slide show of simulations and a full CAD design of the pod.
A month later Chadwick was notified that his team was one of the 20 that had made it to the finals. That meant they would be heading to Southern California to compete and, if they ended up as one of the final three teams, they’d have a go on the Hypertube, the mile-long Hyperloop test track there.
It also meant they would be actually building the pod they’d designed. “We definitely had our own sense of urgency,” says Chadwick. “We stayed up for I don’t know how many nights.” Though he says that he did not quite understand all that it would entail when he started the Hyperloop project, he attributes his ability to manage and organize to having been an eagle scout.
With engineers from so many areas of engineering, the team tried to capitalize on their previous knowledge and experience. To do so, they created a modular design unlike any of the other teams. “We have a simple sleek design
with a lot of holes so you can put rivets everywhere,” says Chadwick. This made modification and last minute changes a cinch. The body of the pod was sheet metal. The subsystems—for stability, horizontal movement, vertical suspension, propulsion, and controls and communication—were easy to remove, tinker with, and reattach. The whole pod weighed 210 pounds, lighter than most of their competitors.
Those competitors, though highly motivated, were not of the cut-throat kind. Chadwick found the teams in the parking lot where they set up camp eager to swap ideas, very much in the spirit of the open source nature of the project.
The VCU team had an I-beam just outside their tent to test their pod. They found that on the mechanical side of things they had little to tweak. “On the control side—that was a big learning experience
,” says Chadwick. “How things are connected through communications—that’s been a big challenge. You can figure out how something physically works through simulation and testing, but integrating code . . . that’ s where you get a big mess.”
Ultimately, the VCU pod did not make it into the final round (students from the Technical University of Munich won with a pod that hit 290 mph.) But there’s no question that Chadwick and the VCU team
will be back next year. “If you have enough people that are passionate,” says Chadwick, “you can do anything.”
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
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