When SpaceX founder Elon Musk launched a competition to revolutionize the future of transportation, U-M students jumped in. Aerospace Engineering students Nic Roberts, Shivam Sharma, Derek Lukacs, and Hossein Zabihian are members of an intercollegiate team called Openloop. Started this year, Openloop has designed a prototype Hyperloop pod that tests the beginnings of a revolutionary transportation system – one that could turn a four-hour car ride into a 30-minute trip. This summer, they will compete against 30 other teams and will test their 4’ tall prototype in Hawthorne, California.
In June 2015, Musk challenged student teams to design the best pod for the Hyperloop, a futuristic transportation system. In the Hyperloop, pods powered by linear induction motors travel along rails, similar to modern bullet trains; however, using either compressed air skates or magnetic levitation (maglev), the pods hover above the rails in a low-pressure, vacuum tube. Ultimately, this results in a transonic transportation system that dramatically reduces transportation time. Musk’s competition proposal was simple: Design the best Hyperloop pod.
With Openloop, U-M students teamed up with students from Cornell, Princeton, Northeastern, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Harvey Mudd. The project was split into five different subsystems: Fuselage, Compressed Air, Suspension/Air Skates, Controls, and Electrical, with Michigan designing the fuselage.
“A NASA article on Hyperloop published last year gave us a starting point for our design,” explained team member Nic Roberts, “and the mentorship of our advisor, Dr. Mirko Gamba, also proved critical to keeping us on track. We took inspiration from aircraft frames when designing our fuselage substructure, but other than that, it was a fairly original design tailored to interface with the SpaceX propulsion device.”
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the Openloop design, however, is the air skate system. Such a system has never been widely tested or used in low-pressure environments like the Hyperloop track, so the team had to start nearly from scratch. With some assistance from U-M, the Cornell, Northeastern, and Memorial University teams created a brand-new system using only basic aero- and thermodynamic principles. According to Roberts, the team has already carried out a series of tests at Northeastern University and will continue to refine the design for the Competition Weekend this summer.
Because of the short competition timeline, Openloop nearly became a full-time job, with the team averaging 20 to 30 hours per week on its design. Considering that the Michigan team is primarily freshmen, who are also grappling with classes, jobs, and their first semesters of college, it was a whirlwind experience that Roberts admitted was “not easy at all.”
After over 100 student teams presented their designs for consideration at January’s Design Weekend at Texas A&M University, Openloop was only one of about 30 teams to advance to the final round. At this summer’s Competition Weekend, they will test a large-scale model of their design around SpaceX’s one-mile, six-foot-diameter test track outside their headquarters in Hawthorne, California. U-M will continue work on the pod’s fuselage, and construction is expected to begin in the Wilson Center soon.