Science

Badgerloop team aims high for upcoming SpaceX Competition

Attendees of all ages view Badgerloop’s newest Pod III, an electric-propulsion carbon fiber hyperloop pod.

Image By: Photo Courtesy of UW-Madison Engineering

Ryan Castle, a 21-year-old junior studying electrical engineering, doesn’t live a typical college lifestyle. While many students’ typical day includes three to four lectures, some study time in the evening, and some Netflix to finish the night, Ryan spends over one hundred hours a week split between two things – his engineering co-op and the Badgerloop team.

After he leaves his eight-to-five co-op, Castle returns home, grabs a quick bite to eat, and heads to the Badgerloop workshop at the UW’s Mechanical Engineering building.

As the electrical systems director, Castle said there’s always work to be done for Badgerloop, the University’s hyperloop team that develops pods to compete in SpaceX’s yearly competitions.

Many team members spent their evenings working together in their workshop to prepare their new pod for SpaceX’s upcoming competition, and these students have attained a high level of engineering and team leadership experience as a result of being involved with Badgerloop.

“Our team goal is to provide a great experience for engineering students and otherwise to learn a lot about the competitions, passing SpaceX’s safety checks, and continue to work hard in the future to have great competitions,” Castle said.

Hyperloop is Elon Musk’s brainchild to completely revolutionize public transportation – no small task in a country that is so largely dependent on personal vehicles. It involves using car-sized pods that travel down pressurized tubes at the speeds of modern airliners.

The pods’ aerodynamic design coupled with the vacuum-sealed tubes in which they travel in results in very low air resistance and extremely efficient travel – which effectively solves a major issue that affects almost all public transportation today.

As public transportation systems like airplanes and high-speed trains progress to travel farther distances without stopping, the issue of air resistance grows exponentially. Hyperloop solves thisissue resulting in an extremely efficient form of transportation.

And the prospect of hyperloop isn’t as far off as it seems, at least according to Hyperloop One, a private company developing their own hyperloop track and funded by Virgin Group. According to their website, there are eleven routes currently in the planning stages of development, including routes like Miami to Orlando, Los Angeles to San Diego, and a triangular route connecting Houston, Dallas and Austin.

Despite the initial excitement over hyperloop, the cost of this emerging technology is extremely high, as one leaked Hyperloop One document indicated a cost of up to $121 million per mile for a route in the Bay Area. This places a 100-mile route near the cost of $12 billion.

Elon Musk hopes to offset some of the development costs by enlisting the help of colleges across the world, which is what led to the development of SpaceX’s Hyperloop Competition.

With the first event taking place in January 2016, teams were first tasked with designing a fully functional pod to be visually evaluated by engineers at SpaceX. Competition included117 teams from six different countries,Badgerloop was one of three teams awarded a technical excellence award.

In the next competition, teams were instructed to build fully functioning, scalable pods to be tested on SpaceX’s recently constructed 1-mile test loop. Team President Kali Kinziger indicated how much of a challenge this first competition was both financially and technically, as the team prepared for an entire year and amassed corporate sponsorships totaling over $140,000.

Badgerloop was given an innovation award at this competition and later won an additional innovation award at the next competition, the only team to do so.

Each year SpaceX changes the restrictions for the competitions “pretty fundamentally every year,” according to Castle, so the teams are continuously pushed to innovate in new ways.

Compared to last year’s pod, Badgerloop’s Pod III is much smaller and lighter, accomplished by shrinking the overall size and using a full carbon fiber outer shell. Though last year’s pod was able to fit a single occupant inside the pod, this year the team decided to go all in on maximum speed and removed the seat.

SpaceX doesn’t require that the pods carry any occupants or cargo at this stage in the development, so to remain as competitive as possible, Badgerloop focused on upgrading its propulsion and braking systems while also staying as light as possible.

“We have two extremely robust braking systems and they’re the strongest we’ve ever built, yet still remain extremely competitive in terms of their mass,” said Justin Williams, the technical director for the team.

Williams went on to state how their suspension technology is similar to what is used in competitive motorsports, and that their brake pad system is used throughout the performance automotive industry.

One of the many challenges the team faced was designing their pod to handle traveling at sustained high speeds, and with the wheels turning at a rate of over 33,000 rpm, this proved to be quite a challenge.

Williams elaboratedon how the team had to re-machine their wheels and suspension system multiple times to ensure that all their parts met their precise design requirements.

Though the goal of hyperloop is to travel at speeds of around 700 mph, Badgerloop’s newest pod aims to reach speeds between 200 and 300 mph. It can reach these speeds using an electrical belt-driven motor that turnsa single drive wheel running on a center rail.

The team has lofty expectations for this year’s SpaceX Hyperloop competition, which occurs at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Each competition is roughly a week and a half and is no vacation for the Badgerloop team.

“Most of the time, it’s just like absolute hell,” Kinziger said.

Given that their pod survives the roughly 30-hour drive to California, the team must then test and retest all their safety systems to be sure their pod doesn’t turn into dead weight as it hurtles down the track.

Equipped with a wireless transmitter, the team can activate a kill switch within the pod that cuts all propulsion power from the engine and slows the pod to a stop.This is one of the systems that is vital in ensuring their pod’s safety.

Last year the team faced major electrical difficulties because moisture leaked into their van that was transporting their pod, so Castle and the other electrical engineers spent much of the week frantically rewiring their systems. This didn’t prevent the team from finding success though, and other teams were willing to help as well.

With competitors including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue, Virginia Tech and many others, the competitions demand the best the universities have to offer. Since Badgerloop was one of the very first teams competing, Castle added that this experience gives them a competitive advantage when compared to some of the newer teams.

After learning from their past mistakes, the team expressed how relaxed and confident they are with their new pod, which is appropriate considering they are one of the most awarded teams competing.

Despite facing such strong competition and tough design restrictions, ambition persists throughout the team, and Williams mentioned how the team hopes to “bring home a lot more than just an innovation award this year.”

Even though the competition is fierce in finding who has the best pod, Kinziger stated how each team knows they are all working together towards the same goal: developing usable hyperloop pods.

These students are at the forefront of emerging technology, and professionals all over the industry are taking notice, especially hyperloop’s creator Elon Musk. He shares the teams’ hopes that hyperloop becomes an integral part of mass transportation across the world.

“Short of figuring out real teleportation, the only real option for super-fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment,” he said. “The Hyperloop is, in my opinion, the right solution.”

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