September 18, 2018
UW Aeronautics and Astronautics students helped propel the UW Hyperloop Team to an Innovation Prize at SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, this summer. This competition is the open-source SpaceX-sponsored vision of CEO Elon Musk to create a new high-speed system of pods traveling in nearly airless tubes underground. This travel system would ultimately be cost and energy-efficient and revolutionize both commuting and intercity travel. Competitors pass an exhaustive series of performance and safety tests before earning the privilege to run their pods in the 1.2-kilometer-long tunnel to vie for the fastest performance.
A&A’s 2018 graduate Sev Sandomirsky, with A&A minors Mitchell Frimodt, Daniel Torres and Klemen Kotar, helped UW Hyperloop win one of three innovation prizes and place in the final four of the competition. UW Hyperloop’s innovation was squarely in the A&A wheelhouse of using cold gas thrusters to power the pod. Sandomirsky, who was on the propulsion team, says, “After WARR (the Technical University of Munich) set the record by achieving over 200mph last year with electric motors, the momentum of the competition turned in favor of that kind of propulsion. We decided to go against the grain and do something absolutely crazy by attempting a cold gas thruster. It was a huge risk, but certainly paid off!”
While WARR won the top prize for the third year in a row, UW’s Hyperloop pod beat out all other U.S. competition and earned a nod from Musk.
The Hyperloop Pod Competition is broken up into two main components: testing week and final competition day. Testing week runs Monday through Saturday during which engineers from SpaceX and Musk’s Boring Company certify the pods for safety after many checkpoints.
Sandomirsky remarks, “For the first time as a young engineer, I was able to go beyond the design and manufacturing stage and learn about business operations. The opportunity to be responsible for managing a tight timeline and troubleshooting problems in real time is something that every engineer should have. It is critical to understand how your design decisions can impact how the product can be modified and actually used.”
Sandomirsky was impressed with the intensity of the experience and notes that the teams were held to the same high standards as teams from SpaceX or the Boring Company. The testing week included two all-nighters for the entire team. “When a problem arose, I made 38 phone calls over two days to resolve it. In Hyperloop, you don’t make excuses. You get it done,” he says.
While the competition awards top honors to the fastest pod, that’s not the complete value of the competition. UW Hyperloop co-director Mitchell Frimodt says, “The value of the competition is in the learning and the development of the students who participate. You learn to solve problems quickly and be prepared for anything because it is not a matter of if something goes wrong, but when. There is no handholding, so you have to step up and figure things out yourself.” Sandomirsky sees the competition’s value as encouraging creative ideas: “You want to strap a rocket onto a train? Do it. Build a custom-designed, carbon fiber chassis? As long as you can find a big enough oven. Roller coaster wheels and bike springs to keep it rolling smoothly? Sounds resourceful!”
As the UW Hyperloop team refines its design for the next competition, they already know they want more A&A students to help them master the cold gas thrusters. “The design and manufacturing of a safe and high-performing cold gas thruster is no easy feat. The technical knowledge, experience and contribution of A&A students become increasingly important to the success of the team and the performance of the pod as we move forward with our design and push the limits of horizontal rocketry,” says Frimodt.
UW set the bar high, and SpaceX will be taking a close look at the award-winning team’s next efforts.