Students transforming future of travel at Elon Musk's SpaceX
What happens when undergraduate students try to solve a problem that has never been solved before?
If you're a member of the Paradigm Hyperloop team it becomes a multi-year roller coaster ride.
New form of transportation
The journey started in 2013 when billionaire inventor and businessman Elon Musk unveiled an idea for a new form of transportation.
Hyperloop, a hypothetical subsonic air travel system, was envisioned to be safer, faster, and cheaper, as well as more sustainable and convenient, than current modes of transportation.
It would consist of low-pressure tubes with capsules that float on a cushion of compressed air and transported at low and high speeds along the length of the tube.
Mr. Musk’s company, SpaceX, announced in 2015 an open competition for student teams to design and build the best hyperloop pod. The company would construct a one-mile test track adjacent to their Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters for testing purposes.
OpenLoop, a team of 15 Memorial University students who joined forces with students from five American universities, signed up for the challenge.
OpenLoop’s design concept earned them a spot to compete. They were among 1,000 students from 120 schools and 20 countries who descended on a town in Texas in early 2016 for a design weekend. However, the team was not chosen to move on to the testing phase of the competition after presenting their design to a panel of judges. They did, however, place among the top 10 teams.
Their disappointment was short-lived. Soon after, SpaceX announced that 10 additional teams would move on to the finals – and OpenLoop was one of them!
“I thought it was all over, but they emailed us at around 8 p.m. that night and told us if we could redesign our pod by 8 a.m. the following morning, we could continue,” said Andrew Way, OpenLoop’s project lead. “Needless to say it was a sleepless night, but we revamped our design and SpaceX approved us.”
In January 2017 the team members and their pod travelled to Hawthorne to compete against 27 other teams from around the world in the inaugural hyperloop pod competition.
There would be one more unwelcome hurdle, though. Due to scheduling constraints, the organizers told the OpenLoop team they would not get a turn to test their pod in the tube!
Ultimately, in August 2017 the team was invited to return for a second competition under its new name, Paradigm, now comprised of students from Memorial University, Northeastern University and the College of the North Atlantic.
The team was one of 22 selected out of 1,200. The team members arrived eager to prove to themselves and to the world what they were capable of.
They didn’t disappoint.
Paradigm placed second in the world for speed, with a top speed of 101 kilometres per hour, and made history as the first to use an air-bearing system.
“We incorporated wheels into the air-bearing system, which is what the pod nominally levitates on,” said Adam Keating, a Memorial engineering alumnus and team lead. “If the air system stopped working during flight, the pod could safely continue to run on wheels at full-speed.”
According to Mr. Keating, most teams use wheels on their pods but there is a series of steps to engage them. What made Paradigm’s system unique was that if the air system failed, the wheels would engage automatically.
With an eye on winning the 2018 competition, Team Paradigm redesigned its pod to reduce its size in order to increase its speed. However, their submitted design did not make the cut.
“There were a couple of issues SpaceX noted and we weren’t able to resolve those in time,” said Nathan Power, the team’s current lead. “This was a blessing in disguise because that gave us a full year to completely redesign the pod and restructure the team.”
This past summer the team competed in the 2019 competition and placed an impressive eighth in the world, third in North America and first in Canada, with a top speed of 470 kilometres per hour.
“I joined shortly after the 2017 success, so I’ve seen the whole roller coaster ride of not getting into the 2018 competition, and the regrouping of the team after that,” said Mr. Power. “In 2019 we went from nothing to eighth in the world. That was massive for us.”
While they don’t yet know if there will be another competition, they’re continuing their research from last year, so if there is another, they will be ready.
“When we started, hyperloop was just an idea,” said Mr. Power. “To be able to contribute to its development on the level we have is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The ups and downs of the competition have given us a sense of pride, but it has also pushed us forward to continue innovating.”
When asked if he is planning to get off the roller coaster ride anytime soon, Mr. Power is firm.
“Definitely not. It’s too much fun.”