By Geoffrey Giller

OpenLoop: Creating the future of transportation

A short video was trending on Facebook in May, showing what looks a bit like a robot’s rib cage shooting down a metal track. The contraption accelerates to over 100 miles per hour in about one second before slowing down in a spray of sand, while upbeat music plays in the background. The video itself isn’t that visually remarkable; it’s what it represents that has people excited.

The sled is a prototype for the future of transportation, as dreamed up by entrepreneur Elon Musk (of SpaceX, Tesla and PayPal fame). In 2013, Musk decided that transportation in the U.S. was in desperate need of innovation after seeing the approval of a “high-speed” train project in California that would be one of the slowest such trains in the world. Musk’s vision: a continuous tube connecting cities (like San Francisco and Los Angeles) that would use a combination of vacuums, air compression and levitation to launch pods full of people at nearly the speed of sound. Musk gave this system the futuristic-sounding name of “Hyperloop.” 

Musk and his various companies didn’t have time to actually design and create this system, however. Instead, other private companies have been working on developing the Hyperloop; the video was a demonstration by one of those companies, Hyperloop One. But in order to drum up interest and to generate new innovations, Musk and SpaceX also announced last summer a competition, geared mostly towards university student teams, for designing a Hyperloop pod. That’s where Nick Parker, a rising computer science junior at Cornell, comes in. “Four hours after they announced this, I posted on the Cornell Engineering group: ‘So, do we have a team yet?’” Parker recalls. The response: “No, because it’s only been four hours.” Parker quickly organized a call with a few other students, and they decided to compete. 

They ran into obstacles almost immediately. Project teams at Cornell Engineering, which can get support from the college in the form of funding, space and access to equipment, normally must follow a set timeline: put together a proposal to form a team in the spring, and, if approved, start work in the fall. But with preliminary design schematics due for the Hyperloop competition in November, that timeline wasn’t going to work.

While they couldn’t register immediately as a team, says Rebecca Macdonald, the Swanson Director of Engineering Student Project Teams, they were welcome to find an advisor and form a club. “I wanted to let them know that I think it’s a fantastic initiative,” she says, even though she couldn’t offer them official support that the other registered student teams receive. There are currently over 1,000 students on two dozen teams at Cornell Engineering, working on projects from clean water initiatives to bridge-building in Bolivia. So Parker found an advisor—Michel Louge, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering—who agreed to sign on and formed a club instead.

Parker and his burgeoning club also recognized that they were going to need help from outside Cornell. They reached out to over a dozen other engineering schools, and eventually nascent teams at Princeton University, Harvey Mudd College, the University of Michigan, Northeastern University and the Memorial University of Newfoundland agreed to team up. For those keeping count, that’s six universities, three time zones, and two countries. They dubbed themselves “OpenLoop.”

Parker insists on the fact that OpenLoop is not “Cornell’s team.” Rather, it’s an alliance of the six schools. Membership varies, but Parker estimates that there are about 60 to 80 members of OpenLoop across the campuses. The whole thing is very democratic: In the beginning, “we had six campus leaders, and we were voting on everything by majority,” he says. However, Parker is the “build lead,” an elected position that OpenLoop decided to create that can unilaterally make quick decisions when there’s no time to debate across the various campuses and time zones.

Patrick McKeen, a rising senior and OpenLoop’s campus lead at Harvey Mudd, was not initially in favor of joining up with the alliance. But Parker convinced him, he says. And joining OpenLoop would allow them to potentially create an actual prototype. “Mudd doesn’t have the space to build a pod,” McKeen says, meaning that they would have been a design-only team. While some issues did arise—including the difficulties of working synchronously across so many time zones, or the fact that there were at first six leaders across the colleges with equal standing—McKeen says that they managed to work through them.

Parker made sure to seek out non-engineering students for OpenLoop as well. Julian Moraes, a rising junior at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, is OpenLoop’s business lead. He has helped raise some of the funds that will let OpenLoop actually build their prototype.

Parker also sought out freshmen to join OpenLoop. There can be an advantage, he says, to having people on the team who bring fresh viewpoints. “It allows you to have that extra perspective,” says Annie Taylor, a rising sophomore who plans to major in applied and engineering physics. She joined OpenLoop as a freshman and says sometimes not understanding the basic concepts of an issue—and asking about those concepts—can help others see where they’re going wrong or how to get around a problem that they’re stuck on. Taylor values the experience of working with OpenLoop, which she thinks will help her be a better team member and leader in the future.

Engineering in Uncharted Territory

With the membership of OpenLoop set, the team turned towards the task of actually designing a pod. The challenges were daunting. For starters, objects moving at near-supersonic speeds at ground level, where the air is relatively thick, face incredibly high amounts of air resistance.  Parker’s first instinct: buy a decommissioned jet engine to suck air in at the front of the pod, reducing air drag. “Saner minds prevailed,” he admits. The team decided to focus on a different fundamental challenge: keeping a large metal pod levitating on a track.

 There are two main ways to achieve levitation, explains Parker: magnets (maglev) or compressed air (airlev). They decided to go with airlev, in part because they felt that there was more to explore and invent with airlev. “Maglev’s a pretty well explored space,” says Parker. “Whether we succeed or not, we’ll have proven something very valuable about [airlev] technology.” OpenLoop’s pod relies on eight SCUBA tanks that force compressed air downward, letting the pod speed on a cushion of air a few millimeters above the track. If you get specific enough, says Parker, the “air skates” that they’ve created are actually the first of their kind in the world. “I’m pretty sure we’re building the largest and lowest-pressure air-bearings ever, and there’s a decent chance they’re also the fastest,” he says. “We’re definitely in pretty uncharted territory.” The eventual pod will be about 18-feet-long, encased in a sleek carbon-fiber shell. For the competition, a SpaceX-provided pusher will propel the pod down the track. Real Hyperloop pods will probably use linear induction motors, says Parker.

Parker isn’t worried about patents or intellectual property claims on any of these things they’re creating. Everything will be made public domain, hence the name “OpenLoop.” And should the team win any prize money, each campus will donate their share of the money either to their endowments or a charity.

Let the Competition Begin

The Hyperloop competition unfolds in stages, with the number of teams progressively winnowed. OpenLoop was one of about 120 teams invited to attend Design Weekend this past January, where their designs would be judged after submitting their designs to SpaceX’s Hyperloop committee. Parker and over 50 other OpenLoopers arrived on the Texas A&M campus, where they and the other teams set up booths, swapped tips and stories, and admired each other’s designs.

Then came the moment of truth: the judging. Parker and the other campus leaders presented their designs to the judges—a panel that included both SpaceX employees and academics—and, Parker says, they all thought it went pretty well. In fact, afterwards, they started getting more attention from representatives of various companies that were looking to sponsor some of the teams. 

About an hour before the announcement of which teams would make it through to the next round, a SpaceX engineer walked up to OpenLoop’s booth to ask two or three very pointed questions about specific flaws in the design, Parker recalls. The answers they gave didn’t seem to satisfy him, and he left brusquely. When the 23 teams who had been selected to move on to the next stage were announced, OpenLoop was not among them.

Deflated, Parker and his teammates returned to their scattered campuses and debated what to do next. Parker wanted to take some time to regroup, rework their designs to respond to the critiques, and then reach out again to SpaceX. But others said that they should follow up immediately. “They ended up winning that argument, and I’m very glad they did,” Parker says. He sent off an email to SpaceX’s Hyperloop team the day after the competition, thanking them for their feedback and briefly addressing two main shortcomings that were raised by the judges during the Design Weekend competition. He asked for ten days to address the problems.

The response came almost immediately. “Your team received a lot of attention today,” the email read. “We want to send you through,” they continued, but “10 days is too long... we would need answers by tomorrow morning.”

Parker immediately forwarded the email to the other campus leaders and started calling his Cornell teammates, telling them to meet him at the computer lab. “We didn’t sleep that night,” he says with a laugh. Taylor remembers the night well. “It was exciting, because we all knew that we could do it,” she says. “They had told us explicitly—they said, ‘You have to do X, Y and Z in order to get into the competition,’ and that made it pretty clear.”

The next morning, they submitted a 19-page document to SpaceX addressing the issues raised. And within 24 hours, they got another email: “Congrats, you are going through to Competition Weekend!” OpenLoop was now one of just 31 teams that will be competing at the end of this summer in California, showing off their prototypes. But among the details for moving forward, the Hyperloop team cautioned: “This will be an enormous amount of work.”

Since then, the OpenLoop crew has indeed been hard at work. And they’ve had some outside help, in the form of funding, sponsorships and donations from various companies. Each of the six schools has kicked in $10,000 towards the creation of their prototype. Hyperloop One—the company behind the viral test video—has signed on as a sponsor, offering them another $10,000, advice from their engineers and a visit to the company before Competition Weekend. KVH Industries, a telecommunications company, donated a sensor worth $20,000 that senses the pod’s orientation and acceleration. And a huge get was sponsorship from a precision manufacturing company, Rhinestal AMG, who agreed to build their pod’s frame. 

Some of these companies, like KVH, are just interested in seeing how their technology performs in a novel scenario like this one. “It’s a really interesting use case for them,” Parker says. Plus, it could put them on SpaceX’s or Hyperloop One’s radar down the line, if and when the Hyperloop starts to become a reality. Others, Parker suspects, want to use this competition to find and recruit engineers to come work for them. 

For his part, Parker isn’t ultimately interested in working on transportation systems after he graduates. “This, for me, was mostly a really great way to get leadership experience before actually getting out of school,” he says. He also liked that it could actually have an impact on the world. But Parker’s main interest is 3-D printing. He built his first 3-D printer when he was 14, and had created several more by the time he graduated from high school. This summer, he’s working for a company developing 3-D printing in space. 

Mark Your Calendar Now!

Parker is eager to see how their pod performs on the mile-long test track that SpaceX is building in Hawthorne, Calif., for the competition. He’s not concerned with how fast it’s able to go, which some other teams are focused on; rather, he wants it to shoot down the track smoothly, “like it’s on a cloud.” He wants to look at the data and think, “I would ride that from San Francisco to L.A.,” he says.

It’s not clear what will happen to OpenLoop after Competition Weekend, partly because SpaceX hasn’t officially declared whether the competition will continue on after that. But Parker thinks he’ll probably switch back to focusing on 3-D printing. Whatever happens with OpenLoop, though, it has already been successful as far as Parker is concerned. Working on and leading a team like this, he says, is a great educational tool, teaching things that coursework simply cannot. 

Hyperloop Competition Weekend is scheduled for Jan. 27-29, 2017. There will undoubtedly be some buzz about it—so if you see “Hyperloop” trending on Facebook early next year, make sure to click on the link and see whether OpenLoop won.