A team of MIT students took first place in the initial round of SpaceX’s Hyperloop pod competition in January, and now they’ve revealed their design. The team’s pod will compete against more than twenty other university and nonprofit teams in the second stage of the SpaceX competition, slated to take place this summer.
The team has built a scaled-down version of the pod, which will use magnets to levitate. That’s significant because it deviates from Elon Musk’s initial whitepaper outlining the Hyperloop idea, which posited a pod floating on a cushion of compressed air known as an air bearing. The community and startups that have since arisen around the Hyperloop have broadly shifted their focus to mag-lev, which is more fault-tolerant than an air bearing.
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MIT’s pod also uses magnets for its braking system, but will have a system of wheels for the start and end of its trip.
Speaking to the BBC, the team said that the brakes still needed more testing. Most interestingly, they also said that they were having substantial problems making the pod turn, which would be a huge obstacle for a transportation system.
MIT’s pod is still a fairly small model, even relative to the roughly half-scale pods that are expected to go head to head in the SpaceX competition. Track size and other details of the competition haven’t been made public by SpaceX yet, and MIT’s team indicates it hasn’t received specs for the launcher that will be used to get the pods up to speed. With the competition supposedly mere months away, that raises questions of how teams will adapt to still-unreleased standards, or whether the competition might be pushed back.
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After releasing the initial Hyperloop whitepaper, Musk said he wouldn't be helping build the Hyperloop himself. But as interest rose, he announced he would sponsor the pod design competition through SpaceX. SpaceX has used the competition to its advantage by actively recruiting the young engineers it attracted.
Two sometimes-contentious commercial Hyperloop projects also latched on to the idea, neither formally affiliated with Musk or SpaceX. The companies have both made significant recent progress: Hyperloop One just publicly demoed its pod chassis, and its competitor, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has reached an agreement with Slovakia to explore building a Hyperloop there.