Hyperloop UC Students Zoom Ahead in Global Competition

The members of Hyperloop UC had driven a very long way to have an identity crisis.

Including bathroom breaks, roadside meals and a frantic three hours of last-minute changes at a Starbucks outside of Nashville, Tennessee, the trip from Cincinnati to the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend at Texas A&M University took 25 hours and 17 minutes. Weary but eager, the students set up a booth to share their vision for a new mode of transportation.

But many of their visitors, instead of inquiring about the innovative design or technical specifications, asked this: Are you from UC Berkeley, UC Davis or UCLA?

Dhaval Shiyani, the Hyperloop UC team captain, shakes his head in mock frustration as he remembers the mix-up. “No, we’re from Ohio. We are the UC. The only UC!” he said with a laugh.

After his team’s performance in Texas, however, he expects far less confusion. Out of more than 1,000 initial submissions to the contest and 115 teams that presented at the design weekend in January, Hyperloop UC was one of only 30 to qualify for the final round in late January—a competition of prototypes on a test track outside of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The University of Cincinnati team is putting its own spin on the hyperloop, a transportation concept first developed by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk. In this system, vehicles called pods would zip through a large steel tube with very low air pressure. Musk’s original design imagined that the pods would float on cushions of pressurized air, much like pucks sliding across an air hockey table, but Hyperloop UC’s version uses magnetic levitation. Because the tube reduces air resistance and the magnets eliminate friction, hyperloop pods could make smooth journeys at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour.

Promising the swiftness of a plane and the convenience of a subway, the hyperloop had excited Shiyani ever since Musk first released the “Hyperloop Alpha” white paper in 2013.

When SpaceX announced its competition in the summer of 2015, the master’s student in aerospace engineering immediately gathered a team to explore new ideas for a pod.

“It started as a core engineering thing, just me talking with five or six of my friends to compile a rough document of what our design should be,” Shiyani recalled. With that groundwork in hand, the team took to social media to find new members, posting a recruitment flyer that called for “ambitious individuals” to “come design the future.”

The response was overwhelming—more than 170 students expressed their interest in the project. From a handful of engineers, the team has mushroomed to include over 60 members and represent many different disciplines within the university. That versatility has helped Hyperloop UC become much more than a technical think-tank.

“We want to provide our idea of what the hyperloop should look like in every single aspect,” Shiyani said. “How do you get on and off the loop, what do the stations look like and what should the ticket price be? It should be a complete experience.”

Managing the team to create that single vision is the job of Sid Thatham, Hyperloop UC’s director of operations. The master’s student in business administration says that for many students, the hyperloop project is their first exposure to functioning in a large group.

“People are getting a taste of what it is to work in real life, in a team this big with people from other countries and diverse backgrounds,” he explained.

Like a true tech startup, Hyperloop UC contains subteams for engineering, fundraising and media relations, among other tasks. Thatham organizes technical and nontechnical students together to give each group the necessary expertise for its goals.

Consider the subteam behind the smartphone app that future hyperloop passengers might use to book their tickets. That group includes software engineers and developers with coding prowess, but it also includes Alison McNair, an undergraduate graphic communication design student. She recognizes that the first hyperloop passengers, like the first people to travel by plane, may be wary of this exotic method of transportation.

“Because the hyperloop is a very new experience for people, I don’t want my designs to look like they were designed. They should feel as organic, natural and comfortable as possible,” she said.

McNair draws from existing travel experiences that will be familiar to future passengers. Her smartphone app, for example, shares many similarities with apps for airlines such as Delta and Southwest. To capture the long-distance business market that the team envisions for the hyperloop, she is also including options for regular riders that mirror bus and subway cards.

“You could buy a pass for Monday through Friday that would get you to Chicago for work and back to Cincinnati in time for dinner,” she said. With a projected travel time of 30 minutes between the two cities, the hyperloop could make a commute from Ohio to Illinois as convenient as one from the suburbs to downtown.

Student using plasma cutting.

Student using plasma cutting.

The construction of a full-scale system is still years away, but efforts such as the app serve another valuable purpose: portraying the hyperloop as a reality for possible sponsors. Thatham, who leads Hyperloop UC’s fundraising efforts, notes that the team will need hundreds of thousands of dollars and outside manufacturing help to produce the prototype it will take to the competition weekend in August.

“Not a lot of people know about hyperloop, so raising awareness about the project itself is important,” he said. The team’s designers, writers and business people help its engineers communicate the potential of the technology.

With contributions from the UC Office of the President and local companies such as Cincinnati Incorporated and Tri-State Fabricators, Hyperloop UC is well on the way to completing its prototype. Shiyani beams with pride as he shows an in-progress photograph of the pod’s skeleton, a towering fifteen feet of silver aluminum tubes.

“It just feels good to have something you can handle,” he said. “It’s not 1969, but when people are excited about a thing, you can land on the moon.” 

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