How Auburn University Solved the Hyperloop Control Problem

The Auburn University Hyperloop team is helping change transportation.

Auburn Hyperloop

Governments are increasingly buying into hyperloop technology. Russia, Slovakia, Dubai, and other Eastern European countries are looking into the feasibility of the futuristic transport system. Now, someone just has to build one. Enter America.

Hyperloop One and its rival Hyperloop Transportation Technologies have been making headlines for pushing the technology forward. Hyperloop One ran the first public hyperloop engine test in May, and HTT devised a sensor-infused metal it’s calling “vibranium” — yeah, the stuff of comic books — to encase a pod.

But there’s another core group of people inching the hyperloop closer to reality: the more than 100 teams of engineers and university students that competed in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Design Competition this past January in Texas — 18 of which will head to California to test their passenger pods later this year. Each one of those teams had one goal: help design a method of transportation that has little to no precedent.

“When we first brought this idea of designing this high speed vacuum train to the dean (at Auburn University), I’m pretty sure he thought we were crazy,” Alex Thompson, co-captain of the Auburn Hyperloop team from Auburn University in Alabama, tells Inverse.

The dean had every right to be hesitant — Thompson and Addison Baitcher, the team’s other captain, were asking to do something crazy. The competition pitted the top schools in the country and teams around the world to come up with the best way to send people hurtling over 700 miles per hour in an airless tube.

Thompson had experience working with the design and quality control at Kia, and Baitcher had worked on design at Tesla, but the only reference they had to design a hyperloop was Musk’s white paper explaining his idea. Essentially, Thompson and Baitcher were asking administrators of a small Southern school to fund a group of students as they help create the unprecedented transportation of the future on a six month deadline.

Auburn Hyperloop won’t be joining the 18 teams testing its pod design on SpaceX’s California Hyperloop Test Track this year, though. Auburn Hyperloop’s award-winning control subsystem and design, however, will help create a complete working hyperloop.

The Auburn Hyperloop pod design.

Auburn Hyperloop team

How to design the unprecedented

Engineers use benchmarking — looking back at what other people have done in the past, and then building on that idea to create something new — to make new designs

There are few ways to benchmark your way to success with the hyperloop, however.

“We essentially decided to just start reading,” Thompson says. “It was somewhere between a car and a plane. Aerodynamic like a plane and small like a car. So we wanted to structure the body of the vehicle like an aircraft fuselage.”

The design had to fit in the tube constraints provided by Tesla. Auburn Hyperloop made initial designs based on those constraints, and when SpaceX changed the constraints, Auburn Hyperloop’s design changed as well.

The dynamic environment of the whole process was what “either frustrated or excited the team,” Thompson says. Students from every section of Auburn’s college of engineering were part of the team. Thompson and Baitcher decided to focus everyone’s attention on one problem: how to control a hovering hyperloop pod.

Auburn Hyperloop's control system focused on keeping the pod away from the tube.

Auburn Hyperloop team

Tackling the suspension control problem

The extremely low pressure, pneumatic tube the proposed hyperloop will operate in is just as important for a successful hyperloop as the pods being designed by the teams. For the hyperloop to work, the pod and tube must never touch each other at any time the pod is moving.

“We have this train and it had to go down this track, but we can’t guarantee the track will be straight,” Baitcher says. The teams were allowed to use a monorail in the initial design phase, but the end product won’t be connected to a monorail for guidance. “So how do we make sure this thing goes straight without impacting the tube or monorail, when we can’t guarantee that the pod is going to go straight?

The Auburn Hyperloop team focused on fixing that problem: make a pod that moves independently from all other surfaces.

“A lot of teams overlooked that aspect and that is what SpaceX told us as well,” Baitcher says.

Auburn Hyperloop used a hover engine designed by Arx Pax (the same company now selling two engines for $9,999) to generate a lifting force for its design concept.

“By pushing almost Matrix style you can move yourself around,” Baitcher says. “We developed this control system that could be used to potentially control anything.”

The control system would allow a hyperloop pod to round corners without bumping into the tube walls. It was a major hit with the other teams at the competition’s presentations at Texas A&M University in January, Thompson said. Most importantly, it was a major hit with Musk and SpaceX.

The Auburn Hyperloop team won first place in the best overall subsystem category as well as the design concept innovation award.

The key to Auburn Hyperloop's design rests on the bottom of the pod.

Auburn Hyperloop team

The future of the hyperloop

Predicting the future is hard. Musk’s ambitious futuristic predictions are plentiful, but the engineering and development always take longer. Thompson and Baitcher have a reasonably good idea of when the public can expect to get from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes, though.

“2020s is a very optimistic estimation,” Baitcher says. “In 2025, 2030 you may see something come up, but it really depends on how well the testing goes.”

How much money is spent making the hyperloop, how the public will react to the first crash, whether people will even be able to ride in a pod without barfing; it’s all up in the air at this point.

Hyperloop One seems to have taken the lead in engineering and business deals while Hyperloop Transportation Technologies doesn’t appear far behind, but the companies have a lot of work ahead. Thompson will be at Auburn University through the fall semester, and is working on other ways that the control system can be used. Baitcher graduated in May and moved to Texas in mid-June to take a job with SpaceX. Both believe that the hyperloop isnt just some pneumatic pipe dream.

The Auburn University hyperloop team.

“This is our vision, this is the way we want to pursue it, and you can’t tell us were wrong because were engineers we live for this stuff,” Baitcher said. “We love this whole idea of saying this is the challenge, no body can do it, what can we make to solve this problem.”