VT Hyperloop team advances in SpaceX competition | ECE | Virginia Tech


In the loop: propelling transportation into the future

Three Virginia Tech hyperloop team members pose on the pod in the open door of their workshop.
From left: Hyperloop Lead Andrey Gubanov (BSCPE '19), propulsion testing recruit Shashank Shinde (BSCPE '19), and Software Lead Matthew Ritzinger (BSCPE '18) with the Hyperloop pod, which is designed to surpass 200 mph. The pod sleeve can be seen in the background.

A January competition found Virginia Tech undergraduates pitting their design skills against teams from around the world, vying to propel our transportation system into the future.

The teams tested Hyperloop pods that they had designed and built. Hyperloop is a proposed mode of transportation where pod-like vehicles are propelled through a near-vacuum tube at speeds approaching 800 km/hr.

"No one has ever done Hyperloop before," said Anissa Dadkhah (BSEE '19), the incoming electrical lead for Virginia Tech's Hyperloop team. "You can't just look up the answers in a book."

While the concept of high-speed travel through tubes is not new, the Hyperloop hype surged in 2012, when Elon Musk issued a white paper inviting innovators to refresh the idea with updated technologies.

SpaceX created a competition around the concept to encourage progress.

SpaceX employees push the pod through a dark tunnel.
SpaceX employees help push the Virginia Tech pod out of the test track. Photo by David Goldsmith.

Virginia Tech competes

After Virginia Tech placed fourth in the first stage of the competition—a 2016 international pod design competition hosted by Texas A&M University—the multidisciplinary engineering team received an invitation to build their design, undergo testing, and run their pods along SpaceX's 1-mile testing track.

This past January, the Virginia Tech team proceeded to the next step: SpaceX's Hyperloop Pod Competition I outside of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where 27 university teams from around the world competed with their first generation prototype designs.

"We worked really hard to modularize everything for the competition officials and make it as simplistic as possible," said hyperloop lead Andrey Gubanov (BSCPE '19). "And since we might have been the first team to complete the systems check, I think we succeeded."

Three Virginia Tech Hyperloop team members stand around their pod.
Ritzinger and Gubanov show new recruit Shinde the ins and outs of the Hyperloop pod.

The Virginia Tech pod design, which underwent several iterations before achieving its current form, is a sled outfitted with Halbach magnetic arrays in each of the four corners. The passive magnetic arrays bend magnetic fluxincreasing the magnetic field on one side of the array and decreasing it on the other. The SpaceX pusher accelerates pods past their levitation speeds.

"There's some drag to begin with, but at 30 mph, the drag turns to lift, and the pod starts levitating," said Hyperloop Software Lead Matthew Ritzinger (BSCPE '18). "Then we can really get it moving."

While SpaceX guidelines capped the speed at 50 mph during the competition, the pod is designed to surpass 200 mph.

Virginia Tech placed fourth overall, and was the highest placed undergraduate team.

Hokie foundation

Hyperloop is strongly supported by generous gifts from Dan and Lorraine Hodge, Virginia Tech, and a number of industrial sponsors. In recent months, participation and interest in Hyperloop has flourished: the team roster increased from 29 students in the fall semester to 70 this spring.

"We're really excited with how the project is going," said Gubanov. "Virginia Tech is building a 600-foot open-air test track, which is an amazing additionwe won't have to go to California every time we need to test something."

In preparation for the next stage of the competition, which is planned for next August, the team will be outfitting the pod with a secondary propulsion tank donated by Orbital ATK, "the type of tank used for maneuvering satellites in space," said Ritzinger.

Equipped with this and other innovations, said Gubanov, the Virginia Tech team is confident it will excel in Competition II, which will focus on a single criterion: maximum speed.