Students design levitating pod for Hyperloop contest that could revolutionize the future of transportation

July 11, 2016 – BOSTON, MA. – Manny Barros, E’20, works on fabricating parts for the Openloop vehicle in the Richards Machine Shop at Northeastern University on July 11, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

They are 81 strong and hail from Northeastern and five other top universities and colleges. For 10 months, they have been meeting face-to-face weekly via Google Hangouts and chatting over Slack, ricocheting outside-the-box ideas from coast to coast and across national borders.

They are OpenLoop, and they have a dream: To win the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

Launched last June by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, the competition drew more than 115 student engineering teams representing 20 countries, all attempting to design, build, and test a scaled-down version of Musk’s brainchild: a new mode of commuter and cargo transport. Called the Hyperloop, it comprises pods zooming atop a cushion of air along low-pressure tubes at 700-plus mph, close to the speed of sound. It could zip you, in sleek comfort, from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under 30 minutes.

The Hyperloop represents a Utopian future, like that of the Jetsons, in a very concrete, condensed way.
— Manny Barros, E’20

In January, OpenLoop was selected as one of just 30 team finalists to continue on to the testing phase of the competition, to be held this fall on a 1.6-kilometer Hyperloop track near SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

“For me, the Hyperloop is a gateway to changing the world,” says Milan Vidovic, E’18, the Northeastern team lead. Currently nine Northeastern undergraduates, majoring in subjects ranging from finance and computer science to electrical and mechanical engineering, are on board. This past weekend they were diligently integrating components into the OpenLoop frame in the machine shop in Richards Hall with teammates from the University of Michigan and Memorial University of Newfoundland. Students from Harvey Mudd College, Princeton University, and Cornell University round out the OpenLoop alliance.

“The plane was the last mode of transportation invented—that was almost 70 years ago,” says Vidovic. “It changed how humanity interacts and perceives the world. The Hyperloop, similarly, will provide another new perspective.”

A gleaming capsule

The OpenLoop pod, envisioned as a gleaming capsule dotted with sponsors’ names, will be about 18 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high. It will weigh in at some 1,500 pounds and travel up to 200 mph.

The team has divvied up the work by subsystems, based on each school’s area of expertise. The Northeastern contingent is concentrating on the suspension subsystem—the components that levitate the pod off the ground. The other subsystems are controls, fuselage, air supply, and electrical.

July 8, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Ben Lippolis, DMSB'17, works on fabricating parts for the Openloop vehicle in the Richards Machine Shop at Northeastern University on July 8, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Benjamin Lippolis, DMSB’17, who oversees OpenLoop’s purchasing and fundraising, has become “a part-time engineer now.” Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern is also home to the business lead for OpenLoop, Benjamin Lippolis, DMSB’17, who oversees purchasing and fundraising, including sponsorships, for the $150,000 project. He’s a finance major who’s become “a part-time engineer now,” he says, laughing. “I’ve learned a lot about basic engineering principles and how engineers think.” The experience has changed his career focus. Initially a future investment professional, he now wants to work on the business side of an organization involved in technology projects.

“The multiple aspects of this project—engineering design, logistics, legal issues, fundraising, paperwork, and the media—have called for the students to attain standards way above those of a typical academic undergraduate project,” says Northeastern OpenLoop adviser Mehdi Abedi, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. “It is more on an industrial scale. The students’ working attitude and passion for learning new things, along with their ability to establish a communications infrastructure through the internet to manage and coordinate the project, have been astonishing.”

Suspending disbelief

Vidovic’s suspension group has chosen the road—or, more accurately, the track—less traveled in designing its levitation technology. While most teams are using an electromagnetic levitation, or maglev, technology, which relies on magnets and a conducting plate, his is improving on the air-skate technology that Musk himself incorporated in his original theoretical design.

“Our design is a pod with air skates and a fuselage,” says Vidovic. “That’s what we float on when we ride. The plane is like that of an air hockey table: The air comes through and lifts up the pod at least 3 millimeters above the track surface.”

The approach has presented challenges, including how to get sufficient air into the skates for liftoff without using tubing that’s so large the air flow can’t be accurately controlled.

The maglev, on the other hand, is similar to the technology used by the high-speed bullet trains in Japan, says Vidovic. “The technology exists and works. But from the very beginning, a main goal of our team was to advance the Hyperloop technology. And one of the aspects of that technology that has not been well-researched is the air skate.”

Theodore Rausch, E’19, adds a more practical consideration to the choice. “It won’t be economical to buy the large number of magnets that the full-scale Hyperloop will require to travel the necessary distances,” he says while spray-painting several air skates a bright red-orange outside of Richards Hall.

All of the students are in awe of the sheer scale of the Hyperloop project and how much they’re learning not just from their teammates but from all of the competition participants. Among them is Manny Barros, E’20, who’s been stretching his engineering know-how by machining the air skates. This past week he helped drill a whopping 9,005 holes in the plates that the air skate chambers will be bolted to. The air that levitates the pod will be blown through those holes.

“Up until now, I could reach my arms around my engineering projects,” says Barros. “But this is a lot different. There is so much to integrate. The Hyperloop represents a Utopian future, like that of the Jetsons, in a very concrete, condensed way.”