LMU’s Hyperloop Team Makes Noise in SpaceX Contest

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the hyperloop team celebrating

What is 6.5 feet long and designed to travel 310 mph through a reduced-pressure environment inside a thin steel tube 6 feet across?

The LMU Hyperloop pod.

The futuristic pod is part of an international collegiate competition to develop prototypes for a high-speed transportation system sponsored by SpaceX, the Hawthorne, California-based aerospace and technology company founded by Elon Musk.

Seventy LMU students have been working on the transportation pod design since fall 2017, according to Anthony Keba ’19, a computer science major who is leading the effort along with faculty advisers from the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering.

The complex innovation required in such a major project has brought together a dedicated interdisciplinary group of students majoring in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and business. In fact, Keba implemented a divide-and-conquer approach to draw out the best in his peers by arranging four teams: mechanical, electrical, software and electronics, and business. Participation is voluntary and apart from classwork. The teams meet about once a week on their own to discuss the nitty-gritty of their specific research efforts, and the full group meets every Tuesday night to ensure important communications reach everyone.

First-year engineering physics major Ashley Agrello ’21 has found a niche on the mechanical team researching the pod’s carbon fiber material, testing how much force it can withstand, how much weight it can support and how little can be used to keep the pod’s weight down and speed high. She enjoys the team dynamic. “The experience is helping all of us become more comfortable in the working environment,” she says. “We can throw out ideas and not be intimidated.”

LMU enjoyed some early success in the 2018 contest, with a pod design that made it through the preliminary stage of a SpaceX review, becoming one of 47 teams from universities around the world asked to submit a final design. Although LMU was not selected to actually build and test its pod in the July 2018 race, students are just as enthusiastically looking now to the 2019 competition. They are integrating the technical feedback they got from SpaceX and will come back with an even stronger proposal for next year.

Working on the LMU Hyperloop provides real world, hands-on experience. “First and foremost, the project gives everyone an extra opportunity for lessons that can’t be learned in the classroom,” Keba says. “We may study how volts go through a system, but in testing electrical systems for the pod, we experience it.” Agrello agrees. “One of the most important things for a college student is to apply our knowledge. Until you apply a concept, you don’t really know what you are doing.”

As a full-scale model, the Hyperloop pod is an excellent testing ground. Every function must be considered, from the best motor and braking system capable of withstanding high speeds to how computer sensors function in the extreme environment and when they should transmit data to the control center.

Still, not every lesson the pod teaches is in the technology space. Business team leader Lauren Kenes ’18 has been working on project funding by developing a sponsorship package to attract dollars from large organizations. Thus far, Boeing is in for donating more than $100,000 worth of carbon fiber for the pod’s frame and shell. The goal is to secure about $230,000 worth of parts and materials. As a business major with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, Kenes says the interdisciplinary experience is valuable. “I’m networking with people outside of my major, and it’s really fun,” she says. “I’m working with engineers who don’t know what a business plan looks like, and they are talking about engineering concepts new to me, yet we are developing something together.”

As the faculty member who first brought the Hyperloop project to LMU, Ray Toal, professor and chair of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, says there is an excitement that flows through the team. “Whenever you get a bunch of people in a room doing the stuff that they like to do, there’s a lot of energy. That’s infectious and makes you want to work hard, too,” he says. “It’s fun and it's noisy, but noisy in a good way.”

Nicholas Lozano ’19 says it is the innovation that has everyone so energized. “This project has a lot of potential,” says Lozano, who is a physics major and the leader of the electrical team. “Hyperloop may be a viable transportation method in the future. In a decade or two down the road, it will be interesting to see whether we have an interstate Hyperloop.” And if we do, many LMU alumni may be able to say they played a part in making that a reality.