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Render of Poddy McPodface

HypED’s Poddy McPodface prepares for SpaceX Hyperloop competition

Image credit: HypED

The University of Edinburgh’s HypED society is one of 24 groups – and the only UK entrant – to gain a spot in the global final of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition II, taking place this August in California.

While stuck in traffic between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Elon Musk, ceo of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, recognised the need for a new mode of transportation. He proposed a conceptual design of a quick, self-powering and safe train-like pod travelling at near-sonic velocities in an evacuated tube.

To help accelerate the development of a functional prototype, SpaceX announced an open competition, geared towards university students and independent engineering teams, to design and build the best Hyperloop pod.

In August 2015, an engineering student at the University of Edinburgh saw an advertisement for the first SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. He spread the word and gathered together a team of 30 engineers and product designers from the School of Engineering and Edinburgh College of Art. In early 2016, the team went to College Station in Texas to compete in the contest and brought back the Subsystem Technical Excellence Award. The story doesn’t end there though.

In March 2016, the University of Edinburgh’s HypED society was officially formed and set about laying strong foundations for its next endeavour, securing sponsorship both from the university and external companies. In September 2016, 60 new members joined the society and in March this year, it became one of 24 groups – and the only one from the UK – selected to build a prototype pod for the global finals of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition II in August at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The society members meet at least five times a week to work on different topics. The work is overseen and important decisions are made by an eight-member HypED committee, which is elected annually. Here, society president, Adam Anyszewski, and secretary, Justas Lukosiunas, explain how the team is gearing up for the finals.

What is happening over the coming months as you build up to the finals?

“We are currently operating in two major work streams: technical and commercial. On the technical side, we are competing in the final round of SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition II, for which we are building a half-scale prototype pod named Poddy McPodface. We have already secured all the funds and resources needed to successfully achieve this, so over the two coming months the team will manufacture separate parts of the pod and assemble them together. Finishing touches will be made at the end of July, which will see Poddy unveiled to the public. In mid-August, the pod will be shipped to the US, where it will be prepared for the competition weekend. During the competition, Poddy will be tested in the one-mile-long SpaceX’s Hyperloop Tube and, finally, it will be shipped back to Edinburgh.

“Our commercial team has also been shortlisted as one of the semi-finalists of Hyperloop One Global Challenge, where a venture-funded firm is seeking global partners for conducting a feasibility study and possible implementation of the technology. We joined a group of 35 semi-finalists among 2,600 entries. We are now strengthening our case for this competition by reaching out to UK-based stakeholders. This is to be finalised soon and in early June the team will fly over to Amsterdam, where the semi-final round for the European teams will take place.

“Furthermore, the commercial team is preparing proposals for the British government on how Hyperloop could improve the airport network in the London area, as well as exploring the concepts of the Hyperloop stations in cooperation with architecture and civil engineering students. While the focus for now is the competition, the latter work streams will form a big part of the group’s activities over the summer and the coming academic year."

How did you arrive at the technological solutions?

“Just like any other design, it all started with a piece of paper and pencil. Knowing the competition objectives, we built a top-down physical model of the pod based on linear parameters and college-level physics. That helped us define main parameters of the pod – we knew what we would/should get at the end without even going into detail.

“Once the main concepts and ideas were sketched out, CAD models were prepared. They were then run through numerous iterations of simulations and numerical analyses, which allowed us to select appropriate materials for the chassis, shell, levitation magnets etc. Hyperloop is a novel concept but incorporates a lot of existing technology, from maglev trains to race cars – there were plenty of sources to get inspired from and a good deal of original thought.

"For some of the subsystems we designed there was a big shock between what we envisaged on paper and what we could actually find on the market, for instance, our braking system, which is critical to safety of our pod, involved help from representatives of HydraulicsOnline who reviewed the design, made sure it’s compliant with industry standards and will be fail safe. Without them, getting things done with our hydraulic system will be much more difficult.”

What have been the most enjoyable aspects so far?

“All of our members are technology lovers, so the opportunity to work on the newest mode of transport that could potentially change the way we live is incredibly exciting. Of course, there is the joy of seeing our work being valued and appreciated, too. We have progressed through numerous judging stages at both competitions and, so far, we have been successful in most of them, so we had many chances to celebrate.

“Moreover, we conduct educational workshops to the public, where we teach the technology behind Hyperloop. The fact that we can share our knowledge with other people and get them interested in the concept of Hyperloop is really enjoyable.”

What have been the most challenging aspects?

“It was quite challenging to get internal or external support and recognition at the start of the process. This changed once HypED proved its competence by bringing home the first prize from the SpaceX competition.

“Another big challenge has been the technology itself. Hyperloop, being only a concept that was never tested on a full scale, is a technically complex system. From maintaining near-vacuum environment inside the tube to magnetic levitation and braking, none of the aspects are trivial and require extensive design efforts, simulations and tests. Nevertheless, these challenges are very exciting and our engineers have come up with smart solutions in solving them.

“Looking into the future, the team has a goal of making Hyperloop a reality in the UK. Technology aside, this will likely be a challenging process due to all the stakeholders involved and a competitive transportation industry.”

How important is involvement in projects such as this to your future careers?

“Projects such as this provide students with all sorts of invaluable experience. First of all, it is an interdisciplinary project that requires cooperation from different academic areas, such as engineering, physics, business, product design, law.

“Secondly, each member from all these different disciplines gets useful practical knowledge, for example, our engineers have learnt how to design, simulate build and test a space frame chassis, while our business specialists have given convincing pitches to companies which have later become sponsors.

“Finally, Hyperloop is a quickly emerging technology that is going to be commercialised soon, so potentially this project could spin out into a business providing the members a chance to build their own careers without working for someone else.

Anyone who wants to follow the progress of HypED can go to the society’s Facebook page, which provides weekly updates. 

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