The finals of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition will take place this Sunday. The crowning race will play out in an airless tube, and EPFL’s student team is among the top three contenders.
For the 21 teams selected to compete, the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition is more than just a time trial down a track in a vacuum tube. After making the initial cut, the teams have to overcome countless hurdles - including 140 qualifying rounds - in their quest to qualify for the final race, which will be held this coming Sunday at 8pm (Swiss time). Friday morning, EPFL’s pod Bella Lui landed a spot in the top three, finishing neck and neck with ETH Zurich and last year’s winner, Munich.
The EPFL students got a confidence boost yesterday after putting their pod through its paces in SpaceX’s airless tube for the first time this year. The large white tube is nearly two meters in diameter and sits on the edge of Hawthorne Airport in Los Angeles, perched on concrete blocks and separated from a four-lane road by a line of traffic barricades. To enter the Loop, the pods are mounted on a platform at one end of the 1.6 km-long tunnel and then placed on aluminum rails. "The tests we ran yesterday were to check the brake system and ensure the autonomous driving system performed to spec," says Mario Paolone, the team’s main advisor.
Long list of procedures
At the end of the tests - which consisted of three trial runs, each faster than the previous one - the team members couldn’t contain their joy. Bella Lui reached a top speed of 158 km/h at a distance of 188 m into the Loop. The distance recorded by the pod as it traveled through the Loop differed from the measured distance by just one meter - this is a negligible discrepancy at this scale, and it proves that the team meets the required criteria. The team’s accomplishment took place under the approving gaze of monitors from SpaceX and The Boring Company, both owned by Elon Musk. During testing in Lausanne, EPFL’s pod reached a maximum speed of 75 km/h at 45 m on the team’s 120 m on-campus track.
The trial runs may have lasted only a few tense seconds each - onlookers held their breath before breaking into applause - but were preceded by nearly two hours of careful preparation under a baking sun. Every move, from plugging in the batteries to filling the compressed air brakes and moving the pod onto the loading platform, was carried out according to a set of operating procedures worthy of the Moon landing. At the SpaceX headquarters, flight procedures are standard fare and safety is taken very seriously. What’s more, many of the qualifying rounds had to do with the teams’ operating procedures, and EPFL got a leg up on this from its experience last year. "Strict procedures are also essential given the potential for human error," says André Hodder, one of the EPFLoop team’s advisors.
A strong entry despite some unforeseen events
The 25 students on the EPFL team have not had a good night’s sleep since they got to LA. Once their pod arrived in boxes, they had to assemble it, test it and deal with the inevitable snafus. For example, they had to lay their hands on a specific type of nut required by the organizers; an electric cable was inadvertently severed; and one of the chargers stopped functioning. Once all the mechanical parts, electronic equipment, outer shell, batteries and brakes were assembled and working and the pod was stable and its propulsion system operational, the team had to focus on the control system - including the autonomous communications among all the subsystems. When you’re targeting speeds of over 500 km/h, there’s no room for error. At this point, the machine picks up where humans leave off.
On Saturday, the organizers will decide which teams can participate in the race through the vacuum tube. Given the time required to run the various procedures - plus another 45 minutes to remove the air from the Loop - only three or four teams will get the nod. Last year, three teams qualified for the race: EPFL, Delft and Munich. This year, those three teams and ETH Zurich are at the top of the list. But what comes next is anyone’s guess.