article Fall 2016

Badgerloop: The Future of Transportation

By Nathan Friar

If you were to ask somebody to name a typical form of motorized transportation, the range of answers are somewhat limited. Over the last 100 years, the machines that we as humans use to power ourselves from place to place has remained pretty standard. Automobiles, boats, trains, and more recently, planes have made up the majority of travel vehicles. However, envision a form of ground-based transportation that is capable of speeds rivalling a supersonic jet and more efficient than a train or automobile. Called a hyperloop, this new concept has the attention of engineers, corporations, and tech enthusiasts around the world.

A hyperloop consists of two main components; the tube and the pod. The basic design is relatively simple. A steel tube is built that connects two destinations. Pods capable of carrying passengers or cargo would sit inside this tube on skis, which would float a tiny amount over the bottom of the tube on a bed of pressurized air. Induction motors would accelerate these pods inside in the tracks and push them to their destination.

The hyperloop concept is the brainchild of the successful entrepreneur and innovator Elon Musk. Responsible for the creation of companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has consistently pushed the boundaries of technological progress, and he’s continuing this trend with the push for the development of a functional hyperloop. Initially conceived to provide an alternative to a proposed high speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a hyperloop would theoretically allow for the mass transit of persons at a cheaper rate. While none of his companies are currently involved in the actual development of a prototype, they are laying the groundwork for those who dare to construct their own.

A means to foster this innovation was announced in the summer of 2015. SpaceX would sponsor a competition in which teams would submit designs for, and eventually build, a working hyperloop pod prototype. SpaceX would build a test track at their headquarters in California, where selected teams could test out their designs in the summer of 2016. So far hundreds of teams from all over the world have entered the competition, including one here at UW-Madison.

Aptly titled Badgerloop, this talented team of engineers is attempting to tackle one of the most ambitious competitions of our time. This project is led by the team president Tieler Calazo, a mechanical engineering senior, who summed up the goal of this endeavor. “The purpose of the project is to revolutionize transportation, and to build a vehicle that hasn’t been built before.” To complete this ambitious task, a large number of individuals have taken it upon themselves to assist in any way possible. “The team just kind of formed organically,” says Calazo. “We came together, decided on team leaders, and registered for the competition immediately.” Around 110 people are currently working on the project, and a basic organizational structure has been established. Sub-groups for the project right now include mechanical, electrical, and software systems, with each being led by someone who reports back to the project leaders on developments and progress. “The people involved with this project are amazing, and every one of them is integral to the success of this project,” states Calazo.

The current focus right now for the team is coming up with an initial design for their hyperloop pod concept. “We need to figure out what methods and processes we’re going to be using come competition weekend,” says Calazo. The focus right now is also on being specific with their ideas and concepts, which is key according to head of industry relations for Badgerloop, Sid Smith, who is also a senior in mechanical engineering. “Specificity will be key when it comes to fundraising,” says Smith. “The sooner we can complete our designs, the sooner we can come up with a budget, and the sooner we can hopefully get funded by some sort of sponsor.” Although early in the design work for their process, Badgerloop is already looking forward to future competition events.

Come January of next year, Badgerloop will be required to present their “Final Design Package” to SpaceX at the Texas A&M campus. There SpaceX will examine and critique their designs. This event will also be attended by companies who will be looking for teams to sponsor and provide funds, materials, and expertise. While the reviews of their work by SpaceX engineers and professionals will be important, connecting with a sponsor will be a key goal of this event for Badgerloop. “This is why right now we’re trying to get the key details of our designs hammered out as soon as possible,” says Smith. Additionally, all of their information and design work will be open sourced, so every team will have access to the same information while working on their designs.

When asked about the competition come next summer and what exactly would be required of their fabricated pod, Calazo stated “the big points will be whether the pod makes it all the way through one mile long test track built by SpaceX, and also the smoothness and overall quality of the ride.” The design pod that they will be required to build is different than that of the actual hyperloop concept. “The competition pod will not be meant for people. It will be more of a way to get the ideas rolling for future models of hyperloop pod prototypes.”

Looking to the future, both Calazo and Smith are very excited for what is in store for the Badgerloop project and the outlook of the hyperloop concept as a whole. “We’ve got the brain power, and we have the faculty assistance,” says Calazo. Smith was also very optimistic. “I think the most important part for any idea is you have to start somewhere, and we absolutely did that,” says Smith. “We have a lot of amazing minds, and we’re trying to go above and beyond what’s expected of us.” Look for this group to be a big player in this groundbreaking SpaceX competition, and possibly help shape the future face of transportation.

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