SpaceX’s ‘Olympics of engineering’: Ireland’s Éirloop fast-track it to the final
The students of Éirloop are rushing to build their 500km/h pod for the SpaceX Student Hyperloop Pod competition in California in July
James Harrington - Engineers Journal
The SpaceX Student Hyperloop Pod competition has attracted 700 entries worldwide – each trying to design the fastest hyperloop pod possible. Éirloop is the only Irish team to make it to the final – only 20 of 700 made the cut. The team are currently building their pod to test on the hyperloop test track at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, in July.
It started with a series of mysterious posters on numerous university toilets with the message ‘If you want to help build the future, call this number’. A few people did call and attended a meeting at a hotel in Dublin, where there were people from colleges in Dublin and Maynooth. There the team was formed.
One of the people who attended that meeting is Akhil Voorakkara. Currently, the first year electronic and computer engineering Dublin City University student is the head of electronics for Team Éirloop. He is in charge of the brains of the pod – the control systems that make sure it accelerates when it is supposed to, stops when necessary, and detects if anything goes wrong. He is also part of the electrics team, which is building the powertrain, batteries and motors.
Engineering on the fast track
So what’s it like designing a 500 km/h vehicle? “Obviously to go 500+km/h you have to have something very powerful. We are dealing with high voltages and some pretty beefy motors to get there,” says Voorakkara.
“One of the biggest engineering challenges that we have faced so far was actually the suspension. The test track in California is a vacuum tube but all pods that run on it have to be clamped to a rail, which is essentially a single monorail. The track is 1.2 kilometres long but it is made up of numerous sections. Between these sections the tolerances are not exactly micron precision. You have a few millimetres of play in between each section.
“It’s actually very dangerous to have a pod clamped straight on in that scenario and at the intended speeds. You need to have a suspension that dampens the effect of this play without reducing speed. That was a huge challenge that we faced but, thankfully, we are actually in the process of confirming our suspension designs. We are actually building some test rigs and testing various setups right now.”
In California, there will be plenty of variation in the pod designs. Voorakkara explains: “The most distinctive element of our pod is that we are using two motors to drive it with wheels that are horizontally clamped to the rail, unlike a car with vertical wheels. The test track has a single rail. We expect our pod to go much faster than any pod that has been in the competition before while maintaining similar weight and power characteristics.
“The pod has two drivewheels at the front, with two more horizontal wheels at the back for stability, and then you have another 12 or so wheels on the top and bottom of the rail for stability as well.”
The competition – high speeds and high pressure
The team will be in California for a week. The first six days will be spent testing the pod and on the seventh day they will be on the test track. It is a high-pressure situation for every team, according to Voorakkara.
“On the last day, once you have passed all your tests, making sure it’s safe, reliable and does what it’s meant to do, you get to do a limited number of high-speed runs on the track – you only get two attempts as far as I understand. If something goes wrong on the first attempt and you don’t get up to the speed you want, or the pod doesn’t start, you get one more try and that’s it.
“It is high pressure. You would be pretty amazed at the kinds of tests that we have to put the pod through. That’s another of the huge engineering challenges that we face – making the pod safe and reliable – making sure that it won’t blow up.”
How fierce will the competition be? “We are one of 20 teams there but the most important thing for us is to prove our concept than to beat any other teams, especially when this is our first year in it. We have already been in touch with several of the European teams and discussed with them how we will ship the pod to California.”
Hyperloop’s future: Dublin to Galway in 11 minutes
Voorakkara believes there is a bright future for the technology: “I believe that we will definitely see a commercially available hyperloop within 10 years somewhere. While it may not be immediately affordable, I’m sure within our lifetimes it will definitely be a case of being able to travel from Dublin to Paris with a comparable cost to currently travelling from Dublin to Cork. Just like all the modes of transport that came before, it will be expensive and slow to roll out at first but successful completion of the first routes will be like an adrenaline shot for further development.
“The biggest obstacle to hyperloop rollout right now is the engineering. Technically, hyperloop doesn’t exist yet. There is no pod that actually does what the original concept wants to do – carries people in a pod in a vacuum tube at the speed of sound. That’s what we at Éirloop are working to solve – to eliminate the technical challenge. The money to invest is pretty much already there in countries like India and Dubai,” he says.
Voorakkara points out that one of the biggest technical issues left to resolve is with the track – how to create a vacuum on a track that is hundreds of kilometres long. Suspension issues are not such a significant problem as the final commercial pods will never be in contact with the track. And containing people in a vacuum has largely been solved with airplane travel.
And as for the hyperloop in Ireland? “The actual hyperloop would be able to connect Galway to Dublin in 11 minutes. That’s huge – you could live in the west of Ireland and work in Dublin, or the other way round. The east-west economic divide in Ireland is a problem right now. Our pod going at 500km/h could do that journey in 25 minutes, which is a huge achievement in itself,” claims Voorakkara.
Chris Horn one of a number of high-profile supporters
While the team is made up entirely of students, they have had the benefit of advice from lecturers. Additionally, a lot of people from industry have come on board to help.
Former Engineers Ireland president Chris Horn has been a big supporter of the team and has assisted them by putting them in touch with companies that can help with the construction of the pod. When they were looking to get some parts made of carbon fibre to reduce the weight and increase the strength of the pod, he introduced them to a startup called PlasmaBound in UCD, which was very interested in the idea.
He is very enthusiastic about the project and wants the engineering community to support it as much as possible: “The Éirloop team are a wonderful example of practical interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration, and are competing with the best of their peers on the world stage. They deserve our full support, particularly in pragmatic ways which will get them and their prototype physically to Hawthorne, Los Angeles, in July.”
In the past couple of months, Éirloop has secured funding and support from a number of companies and universities, including UCD, TCD, DCU, Ding and Mergon. The original final design brief specified a budget of €235,000 but, once they were notified that they had got through to the final, the team were able to consult with industry experts, iron out details and nearly halve their costs by making a range of changes, including to their own travel arrangements. Their total budget for the competition now is about €130,000.
“We still need funding and support to ensure that we and the pod get to the competition. We are on track but we need all the help that we can get in paying for travel and shipping costs. We need to arrange a place to work on the pod in California.
“We need raw materials like billet aluminium, access to more CNC machines, more laser cutters, even cables to connect our motors to our battery system – these things would enable us to greatly reduce our costs. It would be a huge help for one or two more companies to come on board to make some of our 12 high-priority parts remaining. And we’re about 15 flights short of the 20 that we need to ensure that all the people that can make sure the pod does go 500km/h make it to SpaceX this July,” says Voorakkara.
If you want to help the Éirloop team get to California, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.