After Historic SpaceX Debut, Hyperloop at VCU Sets Its Sights on the Future
Cheers erupted from the grandstand when SpaceX officials announced they will host a fourth Hyperloop Pod Competition next year, shortly after declaring the winners of this year’s international competition in Hawthorne, California.
Two Powhatan natives compete with Hyperloop at VCU in international competition
Richmond Times-Dispatch (Powhatan Today) features two local Hyperloop at VCU leaders.
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Sunday: Hyperloop at VCU gives it their all, right up to the last moment.
“You continue to elevate VCU,” says President Rao.
From left: Andrew Wingfield, Vineet Polam, Tyler Brayton, Tammi Chen, Arthur Chadwick, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., Brendan Fisher, John Naylor, Matthew Kozak, Christopher Jones, Harrison Powers, Jonathan O'Dell, Jordan Chancellor. Photo by Kendra Gerlach, VCU Engineering Marketing & Communications.
HAWTHORNE, Calif. - Starting with more than 600 entries from more than 40 countries, the 11-month-long 2018 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition came to an end Sunday when just three of those teams raced their pod vehicles in the near-vacuum tube at SpaceX global headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Each of the remaining teams displayed their pods in tents lining Jack Northrup Boulevard, creating a festival-like setting with a grandstand positioned near the entrance of the race tube and some 2,000 people in attendance.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stopped at several tents to talk to teams about their designs and posed for pictures with the teams that were racing.
The reining team from the previous two competitions, WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich, once again earned top place with a pod speed of 290 mph. Finishing second and third, respectively, were Delft Hyperloop of the Netherlands and EPFLoop of Switzerland.
Going up against many teams that have been here twice previously, VCU’s Hyperloop team had a remarkable showing as one of just 20 invited to compete at SpaceX headquarters and one of only nine United States teams at the competition.
While Hyperloop at VCU was not one of the three teams to race on competition day, this team gave it their all right up to the last moment, passing many tests and completing many qualifications.
“They’ve stayed focused, grinding it through, addressing issues,” said their faculty adviser L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A., IDSA, FAIMBE and executive associate dean of innovation and outreach. “It reminds me a bit of the pits in an auto race where all the teams are still working on their vehicles.
“Some teams pulled out early and the VCU team continued working. They’ve made it through many, many of the qualifications,” said Bost, referencing several teams who withdrew from the competition early for various reasons.
Every team encounters a learning curve and none more steep than the first year, said teammates from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Badgerloop team competing for the third time. Their advice for a first-year team: Go as far as you can go. Complete as many tests as you can complete. Because the learning gained from each of these will be invaluable for next year.
“I think most people feel like they’ve tried their hardest, because they have,” said Hyperloop at VCU President Arthur Chadwick. “They’ve been pushing really hard, even harder than they had to to catch up to these multiple-year teams.”
Chadwick said not only is he proud of the team’s performance in this competition, he’s also proud of the growth among team members in their individual responsibility and also in the way they work with each other.
“It’s nice seeing people interacting with each other on their own, following up and pushing themselves. People are becoming more intrinsically motivated because they know what they’re doing and see their potential for next year.”
“This is an amazing group of students,” said Bost. “They are dedicated in representing VCU and are doing the absolute best they can in this competition.”
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., his family and several sponsors attended the Hyperloop competition, taking part in the street festival and watching the top pods race.
Rao said he feels extreme pride in this multidisciplinary team of students for what they have accomplished in just 11 months.
“I think you’ve taken VCU to the next level,” he said. “Look at the company you’re in here. You guys continue to elevate VCU.”
Rao said these students are “absolutely at the top” in terms of their ability to function as a large team, in their mechanical engineering skills and their business skills. Now with a full year to incorporate all they’ve learned from this competition and to plan for the next one, Rao said he “is excited about all the future years,” knowing that this team and VCU are at the forefront of innovation that will “make the human experience better for everyone.
“I’m proud of them. I’ve learned so much from them. They are filled with so much optimism and positive energy, talking about what we can do.”
Tired and slightly sunburned from a week of nearly round-the-clock effort, Hyperloop at VCU is heading back to Richmond, heads held high from an amazing journey.
Friday: After hours -- connections and celebrations
No doubt the days, and nights, have been filled with work, but Thursday night, several team members headed out late for a Korean barbecue dinner.
“It was the most interesting meal so far,” said Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU. Ten team members sampled the buffet that included a list of about 15 different meats, including beef tongue and small and large intestines.
“Intestines or beef tongue, they both taste good,” said Sudhansu Shrestha, a member of the controls team.
Hyperloop has consumed all things this week, but life still goes on. Three team members are celebrating birthdays in California. Andrew Wingfield as well as Seokgyun Ham, an exchange student from Seoul, South Korea, and member of the mechanical team, had birthdays Friday. Patrick Welch, mechanical co-lead, celebrates his birthday Saturday.
Hyperloop at VCU was also afforded a company visit to Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ (HTT) global headquarters in Culver City. Team members learned how this company is forming agreements to build Hyperloop systems in Abu Dhabi, Ukraine and China in the near future and is right now building a test track in France.
Friday: Check, check — and check
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – Friday’s work for the Hyperloop at VCU team centered around one goal: get the pod running on the external track.
Team president Arthur Chadwick detailed the day’s instructions in a message the night before:
- Pod subtrack unloading and loading procedure will be reviewed
- Reconnect the brake actuator wires
- Solder in the accelerator
- Finalize the GUI (graphical user interface)
- Perform high-voltage battery install and power on
- Continue work on software controls
Though it’s a long list, it was followed by a rallying cry of “We got this, guys. Let’s go, team!”
The loading and unloading procedures have been reviewed and approved, and the communications system for how the pod talks to the SpaceX sensors was also approved. The team is moving through battery tests and approvals. They are also reviewing how the pod would transition from one state to the next while in motion; for example, moving from pre-operations to operations to acceleration, gliding, braking, stopping and emergency stopping.
“We’re about midway through our checks,” said Patrick Welch, mechanical co-lead. “We’re learning physically how things are, how the flow of work goes, the process, how SpaceX does its check-off list.
“We’ve had to put in a lot of long hours, bringing the pod offsite to work through the night to meet those deadlines,” Welch said. “But we’ve been able to clear a lot of safety stuff and a lot of process stuff because of that.”
Welch said most of the issues with the fit have been addressed through minor adjustments.
“Luckily, we have a design that is able to be converted, but it takes a lot of thinking and some ingenuity and thinking outside the box. But working together to solve the problem in a positive way allows us to do it fast and we’ve been able to fix that problem in one day,” he said.
That design is drawing praise from SpaceX advisers for its simplicity and flexibility.
“You guys have a good design,” said Jim Downing, SpaceX technician for the special projects team. “It’s simple. You’re not doing what everybody else is doing. Y'all have a different design.”
Downing praised the team’s attitudes, questions and organization skills. He advised Hyperloop at VCU to work hard this week at making contacts and building relationships with people to bounce questions off next year.
“The biggest thing I could give as far as advice is to follow the policies and procedures you write,” he said, citing the emphasis on safety precautions and preventing any unwanted incidents from occurring.
Saturday is the final day for performing tests and clearing safety inspections before the competition begins Sunday.
“We’re going to be working up to the last minute like we always do to get as much done as we can,” said Matthew Kozak, controls co-lead.
No matter where the team finishes when the competition ends, team members are excited about what competition day brings.
“I think it’s going to be a super motivational day for team members to take back in their memories,” Chadwick said.
Thursday: “That’s what engineering is.”
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – Aided by a hotel that graciously allowed its parking lot to become a work space and kindly promised to keep the coffee pot on, Hyperloop at VCU team members kept plugging away at improvements late Wednesday night and again Thursday.
The team worked in parallel Thursday adjusting wiring, tweaking software to the control area network and addressing clearance issues to fit the I-beam, all with the goal of getting on the external track for testing.
Lead machinist Tammi Chen said she is learning from other teams here about how they are doing things and what this team could do in advance next year to move more easily through the qualification tests.
“If we hadn’t come here, we wouldn’t know what to do for next year, like procedures and the rigorous processes,” she said.
As the team thinks ahead to next year, they can’t help but long for their own makerspace to become available. The former Grubbs’ Auto Service property, recently purchased by the College of Engineering, will provide a place for teams like Hyperloop and Formula SAE to build their vehicles in a garage space with proper tools. It is expected to open later this fall.
“I think it’s going to be very beneficial to have a space where our team can work and to have really nice tools. We need very precise tools for precision machining,” Chen said.
For at least two days so far, Hyperloop at VCU has moved its pod vehicle into parking lots offsite to continue working late into the night. Many teams who have been to the competition before pre-arranged warehouse or garage space to move their pods for offsite work – some through sponsor companies that have space in the Los Angeles area.
For many team members, including Chen, that has been one of the biggest surprises.
“Teams are working offsite and you don’t really see them until Wednesday,” she said. Arranging an offsite place to work, hopefully not a parking lot, will be on the list of things to take into consideration next year.
“A lot of people drive by slowly and are interested and stare,” said Matthew Kozak, controls co-lead. Some even come up to talk and offer advice, which Kozak and Chen both said, “is pretty cool.”
“I think the biggest learning so far has been the whole process of everything,” said Kozak. “Everybody obviously has learned a lot technically. We’ve learned a lot of hard skills, technical stuff and design. But being out here, being around SpaceX and understanding how they function and operate is super helpful for next year – like knowing we need to take it offsite to do some of these bigger tests and knowing they’re totally fine with that.”
It is endurance born of experience the VCU team is learning from teams who have been here before. As they get to know other teams from around the world, many talk about the multiple lessons learned from the previous two years and the very steep learning curve the first year they competed.
“This is a journey,” said Hyperloop faculty adviser L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A., IDSA, FAIMBE and executive associate dean for innovation and outreach. “That’s what engineering is.”
VCU Works on Future Travel
Newsradio WRVA (1140 AM/96.1 FM) goes live with Arthur Chadwick.
Wednesday: Driven by brute force
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – All efforts today, starting from the wee hours of the morning until late Wednesday night, were focused on getting the pod vehicle ready to test on the external subtrack.
The subtrack is an open-air simulation of the I-beam track on which the pod rides when in the near-vacuum test tube.
Before getting clearance to test on the subtrack, however, Hyperloop at VCU must demonstrate their pod vehicle has passed its structural inspection, which started today with a fit test on the I-beam.
“A lot of stuff is happening in parallel,” said Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU, “like vacuum compatibility while preparing for the external track.”
Several members of the team were off site working on coding and software tweaks while others stayed in the SpaceX testing lot preparing for the structural inspection.
Overnight, team members applied resin over the motor controller and shimmed the battery chambers to keep them functioning safely in a near-vacuum environment.
“We’re aiming to test on the subtrack and let the pod do what it’s supposed to do,” Chadwick said. “The hardest thing is getting it functional up to SpaceX standards. We’re just going to hit our goals one at a time.”
Chadwick talked about how already this experience has become a great learning environment after only a few days, and can’t help but think forward to next year and ways to tweak their operations.
“Our biggest thing so far is brute force,” he said. “In the future, we’re going to get more people to fix that, so we don’t have to ‘brute force’ it. We can make it better.”
Driven by determination and that sheer brute force, the team presses on each day and night, working, tweaking and seeking inspection approvals to move forward in the qualifications.
“The biggest thing I see is that we have potential because we’re here,” Chadwick said. “If we had been eliminated early, our biggest potential would be limited to only being in the top 20; but because we’re here, we have the potential to be as good as other teams with more experience.”
Wednesday: "Of course we're going to make it."
Teamwork is something this group has in abundance. During this week of qualifications and testing, students are more than willing to cross out of their specific roles and lend a hand on different subsystems or support with encouragement and advice.
“We’re going to put in our best effort and show that we have potential as a team,” said Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU, “through our communication, our leadership and teamwork.”
In keeping with their true VCU Rams spirit, there is no shortage of dedication and commitment among this group that is working all hours of the day and night who, in the words of Patrick Welch, mechanical co-lead, says, “of course we’re going to make it” as if there could be no other option. And for truly committed Rams such as these, there is no other option.
Taking the Pod for a Walk
Tuesday: A command decision
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – Fueled by input from SpaceX engineers and the push to continue checking items off the safety flowchart, the Hyperloop at VCU team made a command decision today to move the pod to an offsite staging area.
The offsite location allows more team members to be hands-on with the pod, which will move the team closer to the testing phases.
Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU, said, “As we proceeded through the day, we got a better sense of the rest of the week’s plan.”
Today, team members worked on controls, coding, mechanical systems and securing batteries in the battery box for vacuum compatibility. They also tested the control area network (CAN), which is for reading and writing data to or from the motor controller.
Late this afternoon, the team gathered to present and answer questions from a team of SpaceX employees and engineers.
Brendan Fisher, vice president of Hyperloop at VCU, presented the braking system along with Matthew Kozak, controls co-lead, answering questions from SpaceX about its design and redundant systems in case the primary system were to fail.
Tyler Brayton, pod design lead, and Jay Khandpur, propulsion lead, presented on the propulsion system and vibrations. They explained the rationale behind how these systems were developed and the safety factors considered.
“Realistically, this was a good day,” Chadwick said, noting that more than a dozen items can now be checked off in green on the master safety flowchart. “It’s the best way of knowing you’re preventing any critical failures from occurring.”
On the agenda for Wednesday: The team is hoping to test-fit the pod to an I-beam, the pod will undergo a mechanical inspection, they will perform additional testing on the motor and braking system and will continue to have their procedures reviewed and, hopefully, approved.
Tuesday: Inside Tech Giants
Earlier in the week other team members were allowed to tour SpaceX headquarters and see some of their technology and spaceships in person.A special treat was in store for several team members Tuesday evening before another long night of work began. They were allowed to tour The Boring Company, another company founded by Elon Musk that constructs tunnels and infrastructure that would enable Hyperloop transportation through tubes underground.
“The tour was fantastic,” raved Logan Schorr, an incoming freshman mechanical engineering major, who joined the Hyperloop team during his senior year of high school.
Tuesday: Sleep is overrated
HAWTHORNE, Calif. – For many team members, the day is far from over when they leave the testing lot in the evening. Many today were running on about two hours’ sleep from the night before.
Controls team member Sudhansu Shrestha stayed up nearly all last night developing a graphical user interface (GUI) system.
“I really want to make sure we have a GUI,” he said, “because it will be something we can show off. I’m trying my best to help in any way I can.”
Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU, also stayed up most of the night developing a 20-page flow chart depicting everything that needs to be done then tacking the pages in order on an 8-foot sheet of pressboard. The team’s SpaceX adviser was so impressed when he saw the huge flowchart that he brought the board over to the adviser tent to show the other advisers what Chadwick had done.
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Check out Our Community Now’s story on Hyperloop at VCU.
On location at SpaceX with Hyperloop at VCU
Monday: Unpacking the pod, meeting the neighbors
“The pod traveled perfectly, the way it was supposed to,” said Patrick Welch, mechanical co-lead.HAWTHORNE, Calif. - Today, in the company of SpaceX advisers, the team unpacked its pod that had traveled by tractor-trailer in a custom-built crate to the testing site in Hawthorne, California.
With seven team members surrounding the vehicle, they were later able to lift it from its crate and move it to its resting place atop two wooden sawhorses. From this position, team members will be able to perform analysis and testing of the pod’s systems throughout the remainder of the week.
Welch said the team worked on refining its pod transport procedures today, including finalizing a cart to move the vehicle. The students are also working on getting the braking system cleared by SpaceX engineers and will continue that work Tuesday. Late Monday evening, key team members met for a battery-specific safety review with SpaceX engineers.
SpaceX engineers are highly committed to safety and place great focus on batteries, magnets, pressurized systems and hazardous materials — anything that could pose a potential safety hazard to people or machines nearby. It is this attention to safety that necessitates the week of testing before competition day Sunday, July 22.
“The team has a really good workflow because of previous competitions with FIRST Robotics,” said Chadwick, referring to several team members who worked together on the FIRST® Robotics Blue Cheese Team from Deep Run High School in Glen Allen, Virginia.
Chadwick said this previous work experience gives team members “the ability to accept tasks even if they don’t exactly know what that will entail. The team has been very open-minded and flexible to make this happen.”
Positioned across from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Badgerloop team and in front of the team from the University of California, Irvine, VCU team members are finding the close proximity to other teams a valuable collaboration opportunity, meeting co-competitors and SpaceX employees with whom they have had virtual conversations, but now have the chance to meet face to face.
Up next on Tuesday’s agenda: continued work on the brakes, the transport cart and possibly a full integration testing of the software. This will show whether all systems are performing as expected when working together.
In the Hyperloop
In the Hyperloop interviews Arthur Chadwick.
Sunday: Team arrives - and survives a gauntlet of safety checks
HAWTHORNE, Calif. - VCU’s Hyperloop team arrived in California late Saturday ready to compete in SpaceX’s 2018 Hyperloop Pod Competition.
Wearing their gold Hyperloop at VCU team shirts with sponsor logos on the back, VCU students joined other teams at Sunday morning’s check-in and safety briefings, then got busy setting up the tent and workspace that will be their testing area for the remainder of the week. With VCU College of Engineering flags flying and eight-foot Hyperloop at VCU banners waving in the wind, it was evident to all competitors that Virginia Commonwealth University is making its presence known in this race.
After submitting an 86-page safety briefing, team members sat down late Sunday evening with SpaceX engineers for a team-specific safety meeting. Each system of their pod vehicle’s design was reviewed in painstaking detail, from brakes to propulsion, mechanical controls and software controls and even procedures on how to move the 200-pound, nearly six-foot-long pod vehicle.
“I feel like we had a really good day,” said Arthur Chadwick, president of Hyperloop at VCU, when the team left their safety briefing. “We received permission to unpack our pod, which is great.”
While unpacking the pod may sound like a matter of course, it can only happen after SpaceX engineers are satisfied with the team’s safety briefing.
Teams are hoping to race their pods inside the three-quarter-mile-long testing tube at SpaceX headquarters. Hyperloop at VCU is hoping its pod can reach up to about 170 mph, considering the space it will also need for deceleration.
The pod vehicles are prototypes of a Hyperloop transport pod, a new form of ultra high-speed transportation that would move materials and people — a concept being advanced by Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX.
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Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the Hyperloop at VCU team.
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Cheddar U (formerly MTV on Campus) interviews Arthur Chadwick.
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Richmond BizSense previews the 2018 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.
Richmond Magazine interviews Arthur Chadwick, president, and Matthew Kozak, controls co-lead.
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Hear about the Hyperloop at VCU team on Radio IQ, Virginia Public Radio.