Students off on a wild ride to impress Tesla founder Elon Musk

The UNSW Hyperloop team at the launch of their Hyperloop pod. Picture: Nyasha Nyakuengama, UNSW

A group of University of NSW students are on a wild ride to try and capture the attention of Tesla founder and supporter of new technology Elon Musk in an international competition in America.

The students headed by project manager Harry Zhang will unveil a high-speed Hyperloop pod capable of speeds of 500km an hour in a competition against 20 other teams from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The project highlights the engineering, design and technology skills of the competing teams as they display their miniature pods that are prototypes for bigger versions that one day can carry passengers.

“Hyperloop is basically a vacuum train where you ride in pods shuttling between major cities at the speed of sound,” Zhang said.

‘It will have major implications for how we access work, how you think about travel. It totally disrupts the (urban transport) supply chain. It has the potential to completely change the way we think about everyday travel.”

The prototype pods of the university teams will speed through a mile long vacuum tube at maximum speed before decelerating to finish within 30m of the end of the tube.

The competition is in response to Musk’s concept of long distance travel by commuters in vacuum tubes in pressurised pods at speeds comparable to air travel.

Musk devised the Hyperloop competition to accelerate the future of high speed travel around the world and it will be conducted by his subsidiary rocket development company SpaceX.

Zhang said qualifying for the competition was exhaustive.

“It was quite gruelling because we had to apply to compete, then do several design packages over summer and then finally get accepted in February and be invited to SpaceX’s headquarters in California.

“Teams that enter the competition and make it through the multiple rounds of elimination are quite revered in engineering around the world.”

UNSW’s strongest opposition in the competition is expected to be headed by the Technical University of Munich, the undefeated world champions in Hyperloop.

Last year the Munich team set a record of 467km an hour, almost 0.4 mach.

The technical manager of the UNSW team Francis McDonald says the electrical components used to propel the pod on a cushion of air above a single track, are mostly off-the-shelf.

She said the team is also reusing some of the technology behind UNSW’s record breaking sUNSWift solar car.

“We’re taking it a step further,” she added, saying the demands of the competition were deceptively easy.

“It’s such a simple idea. Pretty much the best team is the one that goes the fastest but it’s also very complex.

“We’re dealing with vacuums, so we have to seal all of our systems and that’s pretty interesting to play around with.”

Project leader Yasmin Zaman has overseen construction of the pod and connecting the internal machinery to the chassis which will then be encased in an aerodynamic shell. 

“While we want this to be aerodynamic, it also has to be aesthetic and conforms to the regular engineering requirements of a Hyperloop pod

Zaman, a fifth year aerospace engineering student, says the competition as a great opportunity to apply skills the students have developed and also to network with some of the world’s brightest and most creative young minds in engineering.