Back in August 2013 Elon Musk, CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] released a technical paper online outlining his vision for mass-transit of the future. The paper, entitled Hyperloop Alpha, described a transportation system which used a series of partially-evacuated elevated cylindrical tubes, large enough for a specially-designed capsule to fit in side.
Powered by solar panels on the top of the roof and propelled by magnetic linear electric motors embedded into the tube, the capsules would travel on a cushion of air at the kind of speeds that would make domestic air travel obsolete.
Cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the $60 billion Californian high-speed rail project being proposed at the time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Musk said the Hyperloop was a viable, zero-emission transportation for the future, but conceded that his current workload at SpaceX and Tesla Motors prevented him from personally pursuing the project. Consequentially, Musk invited academics, engineers and investors to take up the Hyperloop challenge for themselves, building on his alpha technical paper and making the Hyperloop a reality.
So far, we’ve seen some significant development on Musk’s Hyperloop, including the foundation of at least two companies dedicated to bringing the concept to reality — one of which is even in the process of building its own 5-mile Hyperloop test track in California.
Yesterday, SpaceX announced its own intentions to help develop the Hyperloop by announcing a brand-new 1-mile Hyperloop test track next to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, along with the announcement of its official SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.
The purpose? To help university students and independent engineering teams to design and build the best Hyperloop pod they can.
“Neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies. While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype,” the official announcement on SpaceX’s website reads.
“For this reason, SpaceX is announce an open competition, geared towards university students and independent engineering teams, to design and build the best Hyperloop pod. To support this competition, Space X will construct a one-mile test track adjacent to our Hawthorne, California headquarters,” it continues. “Teams will be able to test their human-scale pods during a competition weekend at the track, currently targeted for June 2016.”
Teams will have until September 15, 2015 to submit their intent to compete in the competition, and will then have a further month in which to submit their Preliminary Design Briefing to the Hyperloop Pod Competition. Final designs will be expected by December 15.
Then, on the weekend of January 9/10 2016, SpaceX will hold an in-person design weekend with all entrants at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, where teams will be expected to present their designs to a panel of judges.
As the official Hyperloop Pod Competition guidelines detail, teams don’t have to produce a fully-functioning pod in order to take part in the design weekend. Instead, teams may focus on designing the good, an individual subsystem in the pod, or even a single safety feature designed to improve the operation of Hyperloop pods.
All entrants will be required to present their design before an evaluation panel, composed of SpaceX and Tesla Motors engineers as well as university professors and we presume (although it’s not confirmed), Elon Musk.
In its guidelines, SpaceX reiterates that the competition will operate with an open-source model, enabling companies to use the design weekend as an opportunity to select teams to sponsor or support. “Those companies would then contribute funds, at their discretion, toward the construction of a Team’s competition pod.”
After the design weekend will come the final Hyperloop Pod Competition weekend, which is currently set for some time in June next year. While details of the weekend haven’t been finalised, SpaceX says it will release the final competition rules, along with requirements for preliminary design briefing, final design package, design weekend logistics, competition weekend rules, criteria and performance metrics for the competition weekend judging, complete tube specifications, the final competition entry agreement and intellectual property policy some time this August.
To help teams prepare ahead of the release of the full competition rules and regulations, SpaceX has helpfully included the following example technical questions representative of the questions it will likely ask teams.
- What safety mechanisms are in place to mitigate a complete loss of pod power?
- What safety mechanisms are necessary to mitigate a tube breach? The results should be quantified with regards to breach size, leak rate, tube pressures, and pod speed.
- How should the ground operators communicate with the pod, especially in the case of an emergency (emergency stop command)?
- Which sensors, if any, should be incorporated into the tube to aid navigation? How should the pod maintain accurate navigation knowledge within the tube?
- What is the recommended pod outer mold line (OML)? Based on this OML, what is the drag on the pod as a function of speed and tube pressure?
- If an air bearing system is used, how much surface area is needed for the footpad design?
- Specify driving pressure and flow rate needed at those required air bearing areas.
- Compare the flow rates required with practically available commercial units.
- Specify total force applied in both vertical and horizontal directions.
- What sizing and spacing of linear motors would be required to maintain a given speed?
- What is the steady-state temperature of the capsule as a function of speed and tube pressure?
- What is the heat flux into the capsule as a function of speed and tube pressure?
For the many readers, these questions aren’t likely to be all that interesting, but we’ve included them in this article to demonstrate the level of technical proficiency expected of teams — and to illustrate how SpaceX and its partners in the Hyperloop Pod Competition are taking the goal of helping accelerate development of Hyperloop technology very seriously.
While neither Tesla Motors nor SpaceX looking to build their own Hyperloop systems, we can’t think of two companies better suited to helping Hyperloop technology become a reality. After all, when one seeks to revolutionise the auto industry and one the space industry, helping to bring an entirely new transportation system to the world seems like the next logical step — even if that help is being offered on a seemingly altruistic basis.
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