Virginia Tech Hyperloop Team Ventures to SpaceX for Global Competition

Eleven Virginia Tech undergraduate engineering students ventured to SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, for the innovative aerospace company’s Hyperloop Pod Competition II, the second round of the international competition.

After landing in Los Angeles on Aug. 19, the Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team spent the week modifying and integrating the systems on their pod, called the V17, and completing safety tests. The students also met with SpaceX representatives and toured the company’s campus.

While the team was not selected by SpaceX to be one of the three teams to compete in the external Hyperloop test track on competition day, it did complete many of the prerequisite tests with their pod.

“Our pod is a complex system and with a complex system, there’s a lot of things that could potentially go wrong,” said Bobby Smyth, of Yorktown, Virginia, a senior studying mechanical engineering and mechanical team lead, who has also interned at SpaceX. “Once we completed our final integration of the system, we found that there were a couple of things that we needed to tweak and improve to make sure that everything was working seamlessly.”

During the week leading up to the final competition, the team worked to certify their pod through rounds of preliminary checks, including a structural test, a navigation test, a functional test, propulsion approval, and a vacuum chamber test. The team defended the design of their pod to SpaceX representatives due to the potential safety hazards associated with racing a pod through a near-vacuum chamber at high speeds.

The V17 was designed with speed in mind: the 600-pound pod’s suspension system was topped with a large spherical tank that constituted the pod’s propulsion system. The team estimated that the pod could run upward of 55 mph, fueled by compressed high-pressure nitrogen and aided by a SpaceX-designed pusher on the test track.

While theoretically the pod would have been ready to run on the track, the team ran into complications with the electronics as they integrated the system. The team used quick thinking and multiple trips to home improvement and electrical stores to address issues as they found them.

“Everything is very different when you get down to actual testing than it is on paper,” said Eric Plevy, of Durham, North Carolina, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering who is on Hyperloop at Virginia Tech’s aerospace and propulsion subteam. “You can be good at your individual design task … but it’s going to do no good if you don’t understand how it works relative to the rest of the pod.”

The team split nearly all of their time between the SpaceX campus and their Airbnb rental in Hawthorne, with frequent visits to Lowe’s and Wi-Fi hotspots wherever they could find them. They worked long hours and often through the night.

While on the SpaceX campus, the students met with members of the 23 other teams from nine different countries in attendance, swapping ideas and showing off their designs.

The Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team also had a visit from an alumnus who drove 100 miles to meet them. David Bernardi, a materials engineering alumnus from the Class of 1969, had been hoping to meet the team since reading about them in Virginia Tech Magazine.

Bernardi, who spent the last ten years of his career teaching high school mathematics, ripped out the page in the magazine about them and has kept up with them since. He reached out to Pat Artis, Hyperloop team advisor and professor of practice in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, to learn more and secured an invite to the competition.

“I felt very honored because professor [Pat Artis] had said that it takes an act of Congress to get into this facility,” Bernardi said. “So this is a treat. And you know, it’s extra fun, always having been interested in teaching …  to visit with young people who are doing such exciting things.

“It’s huge for me to be with fellow Hokies,” Bernardi added.

After the competition wrapped with a quick speech by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and product architect of Tesla Inc., the team caught a red-eye flight back home so they could return to Blacksburg in time for the first day of Virginia Tech’s fall semester.

They didn’t leave empty-handed: the team returned with new ideas and solutions that they hope to implement in the coming semester in anticipation for the next round of competition. While a date has not yet been set, SpaceX plans to host another competition that will be by invitation only.

The team plans to complete more functional tests with all of the systems integrated in advance of the next round. But before they can move forward, the team has to recruit and work with the business team to find more sponsors and donors.

“As Bobby mentioned, about 35 percent of our success is dependent upon how much of a budget we have,” Plevy said.

The other 65 percent lies in the design of the pod and the dedication of the team’s members — the latter of which there is no shortage.

“Engineers at Virginia Tech are very hands-on, minds-on. They know what it takes to make a functioning system, build it, and have it work the way you need it to,” Smyth said. “So Virginia Tech is going to be able to expand their involvement in the Hyperloop competition … and we hope to make the Hokie Nation proud.”

Written by Erica Corder