OpenLoopStudents from Northeastern and five other top universities have joined forces to form OpenLoop, a team dedicated to designing, building, and testing the best scaled-down version of the futuristic Hyperloop, a novel mode of commuter and cargo transport that travels close to the speed of sound. Their approach takes the competition to new heights.Photo credit: Matthew Moodono/Northeastern University

They are 81 strong and hail from North­eastern and five other top uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges. For ten months, they have been meeting face-to-face weekly via Google Hang­outs and chat­ting over Slack, ric­o­cheting outside-the-box ideas from coast to coast and across national borders.

They are Open­Loop, and they have a dream: To win the SpaceX Hyper­loop Pod Com­pe­ti­tion.

Launched last June by bil­lion­aire entre­pre­neur Elon Musk, the com­pe­ti­tion drew more than 115 stu­dent engi­neering teams rep­re­senting 20 coun­tries, all attempting to design, build, and test a scaled-down ver­sion of Musk’s brain­child: a new mode of com­muter and cargo trans­port. Called the Hyper­loop, it com­prises pods zooming atop a cushion of air along low-pressure tubes at 700-plus mph, close to the speed of sound. It could zip you, in sleek com­fort, from San Fran­cisco to Los Angeles in under 30 minutes.

In Jan­uary, Open­Loop was selected as one of just 30 team final­ists to con­tinue on to the testing phase of the com­pe­ti­tion, to be held this fall on a 1.6-kilometer Hyper­loop track near SpaceX’s head­quar­ters in Hawthorne, California.

For me, the Hyper­loop is a gateway to changing the world,” says Milan Vidovic, E’18, the North­eastern University team lead. Cur­rently nine North­eastern under­grad­u­ates, majoring in sub­jects ranging from finance and com­puter sci­ence to elec­trical and mechan­ical engi­neering, are on board. This past weekend they were dili­gently inte­grating com­po­nents into the Open­Loop frame in the machine shop in Richards Hall with team­mates from the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan and Memo­rial Uni­ver­sity of New­found­land. Stu­dents from Harvey Mudd Col­lege, Princeton Uni­ver­sity, and Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity round out the Open­Loop alliance.

The plane was the last mode of trans­porta­tion invented—that was almost 70 years ago,” says Vidovic. “It changed how humanity inter­acts and per­ceives the world. The Hyper­loop, sim­i­larly, will pro­vide another new perspective.”

A gleaming capsule

The Open­Loop pod, envi­sioned as a gleaming cap­sule dotted with spon­sors’ names, will be about 18 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high. It will weigh in at some 1,500 pounds and travel up to 200 mph.

The team has divvied up the work by sub­sys­tems, based on each school’s area of exper­tise. The North­eastern con­tin­gent is con­cen­trating on the sus­pen­sion subsystem—the com­po­nents that lev­i­tate the pod off the ground. The other sub­sys­tems are con­trols, fuse­lage, air supply, and electrical.

Ben­jamin Lip­polisBen­jamin Lip­polis, DMSB’17, who over­sees OpenLoop’s pur­chasing and fundraising, has become “a part-time engi­neer now.”Photo credit: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

North­eastern is also home to the busi­ness lead for Open­Loop, Ben­jamin Lip­polis, DMSB’17, who over­sees pur­chasing and fundraising, including spon­sor­ships, for the $150,000 project. He’s a finance major who’s become “a part-time engi­neer now,” he says, laughing. “I’ve learned a lot about basic engi­neering prin­ci­ples and how engi­neers think.” The expe­ri­ence has changed his career focus. Ini­tially a future invest­ment pro­fes­sional, he now wants to work on the busi­ness side of an orga­ni­za­tion involved in tech­nology projects.

The mul­tiple aspects of this project—engineering design, logis­tics, legal issues, fundraising, paper­work, and the media—have called for the stu­dents to attain stan­dards way above those of a typ­ical aca­d­emic under­grad­uate project,” says North­eastern Open­Loop adviser Mehdi Abedi, assis­tant teaching pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering. “It is more on an indus­trial scale. The stu­dents’ working atti­tude and pas­sion for learning new things, along with their ability to estab­lish a com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture through the internet to manage and coor­di­nate the project, have been astonishing.”

Sus­pending disbelief

Vidovic’s sus­pen­sion group has chosen the road—or, more accu­rately, the track—less trav­eled in designing its lev­i­ta­tion tech­nology. While most teams are using an elec­tro­mag­netic lev­i­ta­tion, or maglev, tech­nology, which relies on mag­nets and a con­ducting plate, his is improving on the air-skate tech­nology that Musk him­self incor­po­rated in his orig­inal the­o­ret­ical design.

Our design is a pod with air skates and a fuse­lage,” says Vidovic. “That’s what we float on when we ride. The plane is like that of an air hockey table: The air comes through and lifts up the pod at least 3 mil­lime­ters above the track surface.”

The approach has pre­sented chal­lenges, including how to get suf­fi­cient air into the skates for liftoff without using tubing that’s so large the air flow can’t be accu­rately controlled.

The maglev, on the other hand, is sim­ilar to the tech­nology used by the high-speed bullet trains in Japan, says Vidovic. “The tech­nology exists and works. But from the very begin­ning, a main goal of our team was to advance the Hyper­loop tech­nology. And one of the aspects of that tech­nology that has not been well-researched is the air skate.”

Theodore Rausch, E’19, adds a more prac­tical con­sid­er­a­tion to the choice. “It won’t be eco­nom­ical to buy the large number of mag­nets that the full-scale Hyper­loop will require to travel the nec­es­sary dis­tances,” he says while spray-painting sev­eral air skates a bright red-orange out­side of Richards Hall.

All of the stu­dents are in awe of the sheer scale of the Hyper­loop project and how much they’re learning not just from their team­mates but from all of the com­pe­ti­tion par­tic­i­pants. Among them is Manny Barros, E’20, who’s been stretching his engi­neering know-how by machining the air skates. This past week he helped drill a whop­ping 9,005 holes in the plates that the air skate cham­bers will be bolted to. The air that lev­i­tates the pod will be blown through those holes.

Up until now, I could reach my arms around my engi­neering projects,” says Barros. “But this is a lot dif­ferent. There is so much to inte­grate. The Hyper­loop rep­re­sents a Utopian future, like that of the Jet­sons, in a very con­crete, con­densed way.”