Michigan Hyperloop, a team of University of Michigan students designing a pod that can travel at nearly 300 miles per hour, will be traveling to Hawthorne, California to participate in a July 22 competition hosted by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The team will race its pod along SpaceX’s Hypertube, a mile-long, 6 foot-diameter, nearly vacuumized track, competing against 17 other universities from across the globe. Michigan Hyperloop is the only team from the state of Michigan racing this year.

Musk founded the Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2015 with the goal of encouraging young engineers to think creatively about high-speed, futuristic transportation. According to Michael Umbriac, Michigan Hyperloop faculty advisor, SpaceX envisions eventually using Hyperloop pods to shuttle passengers and cargo. In fact, Hyperloop One, a company co-founded in 2012 by Silicon Valley investor Shervin Pishevar and former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan after a conversation with Musk, is currently mapping potential routes domestically and abroad. 

“The ultimate goal is to have a pod that travels about 700 miles per hour from city to city,” Umbriac said. “One of the ideas that was proposed was a pod that can make the trip from Detroit to Chicago in 30 minutes.”

Project team lead Sam Elwell, an Engineering junior, said SpaceX required participating teams to consider the potential future applications of their designs.

“The competition started as a way to foster the technological development of it (high-speed pods), so it is inherently embedded in all of the teams competing to keep the end game of making this a reality in mind when designing,” Elwell wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “For that reason, there is a portion of our final design package that is required to discuss how our vehicle could be scaled to a full scale vehicle that could actually be implemented someday.”

The first two Hypertube competitions occurred in January and August 2017. The University competed on a joint team with Cornell University, Harvey Mudd College, Northeastern University, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Princeton University in January, then competed individually in August. At the competition, Hyperloop pods are judged solely on speed, and starting this year, all designs must be self-propelled along the track. There is no prize other than recognition.

According to Engineering junior Holden Baker, one of the 18 Michigan Hyperloop members attending the competition, there are only three Hyperloop tracks in the world, so SpaceX did not host semifinal competitions. Instead, the 100 teams who applied underwent a rigorous selection process in which SpaceX evaluated written proposals and computer models detailing each design.

Elwell said he thinks Michigan Hyperloop was selected for the SpaceX competition because of its simple yet high-performance design. He added Michigan Hyperloop very effectively presented the prototype to SpaceX, noting the team follows the mantra, “You can have the greatest design in the world, but if you cannot effectively communicate it to someone, then you might as well have not designed it at all.”

Michigan Hyperloop’s pod, which the team of 45 active members started designing in September 2017, is propelled by traction rather than pressurized gas or a turbine. The back wheel is driven by two 50-pound, 260-horsepower electric motors connected to a belt, while the front wheel is used for braking. Engineering senior Alex Laporte, Michigan Hyperloop operations director, described the prototype in an email interview with The Daily.

“The current pod design is a slim, 6 foot vehicle that is planned to go at 300 mph,” Laporte wrote. “The chassis and inner workings of the pod are made out of aluminum to give the pod a lightweight structure, and the outer fairing of the pod is made out of carbon fiber for a light and sleek outer look to the pod. Our design cycle has been about 10 months, 6 months of design and reviews, followed by 4 months of manufacturing and assembly.”

Baker, who focuses on propulsion and brakes, said he another team member have been working in the University’s Wilson Center this summer, ironing out final details in the design.

“We had to re-machine an expensive piece of our pod — it’s called a swing arm; it’s what mounts the motor and the wheel so that they move together,” Baker said. “We’ve been having to fix up things here or there, just a lot of auxiliary work to make things that, from the broad scope, are working, but then we have to get down to the detailing. It’s just trimming the edges.”

One of the biggest difficulties Michigan Hyperloop has faced over the past year has been testing the prototype. Without a full-sized track to use, Baker said, the team has relied on computer-aided design and careful mathematical modeling to evaluate its work. Umbriac added the students have has to assess each part individually.

“Part of the challenge for our team was, how do you test a vehicle that travels on a rail at 300 miles an hour without having a mile-long rail to test it on?” Umbriac said. “The students had just a very small section of rail and so most of their testing had to be done system by system.”

According to Elwell, the team faced technical challenges as well. He said because of SpaceX’s new propulsion requirements, Michigan Hyperloop had to carefully consider how to best power the prototype.

“This year it was mandatory to have our own on board propulsion system, so determining what type of propulsion we were going to use to achieve the highest speed possible and how we were going to power that was very challenging,” Elwell wrote.

Over the course of the past year, Michigan Hyperloop members have had to pick up practical skills in a short amount of time. Baker said much of the team learned how to use a mill and lathe, for instance, and he recently mastered welding, helping to connect 864 tabs for the pod’s 12 high-voltage battery packs.

“I learned how to weld in the last four months, so I welded most of the chassis and stuff, and then on top of that I welded 400 batteries,” Baker said. “This is a great way to learn new skills. I never thought I’d learn how to do welding, but I love doing that now.”

Umbriac said Michigan Hyperloop has also gained communication abilities by talking to suppliers in other countries and arranging component shipping. He added the team provides opportunities outside of engineering — for example, Michigan Hyperloop has an active business subteam that coordinates funding. The $100,000 project is supported by major sponsors like Meijer, which offered to transport the 400-pound pod to California using a 53-foot trailer.

Laporte noted preparing for the competition has been a positive learning opportunity for many of the team’s members.

“I think that Michigan Hyperloop has done an amazing job in two aspects: we have successfully made a hyperloop pod model that is going to be a great proof of concept for the hyperloop idea in general and also done a great job giving young engineering students an opportunity to have meaningful design input on our team,” Laporte wrote. “Our average age on the team is 19, which is amazing because we were working on such a great and meaningful project.”

Overall, Umbriac said he is impressed with the effort Michigan Hyperloop has poured into designing the pod.

“This team can be really proud of all that they’ve learned by going through this design, build and test process,” Umbriac said. “Hopefully someday when the Hyperloop system is a reality, they will be able to look back on this day and say that they helped contribute to its development.”

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