Big Idea: Traveling in a tube at the speed of sound
Students could revolutionize travel
The Badgerloop Pod looks sort of like the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” winged doors stretched open to the sky. It’s not a time machine, but pods like this could potentially one day move at the speed of sound. In January, the 15-foot-long, about 2,100-pound student-designed and built hyperloop prototype (pod 1), took one of two Innovation Awards at the 2017 SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition in Hawthorne, California.
“What we were trying to do is something that reminds me of when I read the story of the Wright Brothers,” says first-year industrial engineering graduate student Zuf Wang, president of Badgerloop, a 60-member cross-discipline student organization with four graduate students–Wang, Michael Schlicting, Dylan Adams and Cole Hess. Many of them devote 20 to 30 hours a week on top of their regular coursework. “It’s an entirely new challenge and could potentially revolutionize how we travel.”
SpaceX is a private company best known for its NASA-contracted advanced rockets and spacecraft. In 2013, SpaceX founder Elon Musk issued a challenge he called Hyperloop Alpha, outlining his vision for a form of high-speed transportation that would be faster than an airliner (think people in pods propelled through tubes, not unlike money deposits at the bank drive-thru). In the summer of 2015, he invited universities around the world to compete in the Space-X Hyperloop Pod Competition. Of the more than 1,000 applicants, only about 115 designs made the cut–including Badgerloop, which eventually placed third in overall design in January 2016. From there, just 23 teams moved on to the Hyperloop Pod Competition II in Hawthorne, where Badgerloop earned that innovation prize. At the end of August, they’ll return to the near one-mile SpaceX hyperloop test track in Hawthorne to compete in the second installment of the competition with pod 2.
While hyperloop-as-reality remains to be proven, the real-world business experience Badgerloop students gain is remarkable. “We function very much like a startup company,” Wang says of the group’s endeavors that exceed engineering, and includes fundraising, marketing, feasibility, and research and development. Ultimately, Wang thinks there’s a good chance hyperloop will become a reality, noting their work “embodies the essence of the Wisconsin Idea.”
“At the end of the day, it’s the innovative spirit that is driving all these students and it’s the passion and belief that eventually we’ll be able to make a difference,” says Wang. “There’s been no innovation in transportation for the past 50 years … so I think we’re really on the verge of something.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.
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