SpaceX founder Elon Musk. (Bloomberg)
San Francisco - Teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Delft University in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin at Madison were among those winning a chance to build and test their pod designs for the “Hyperloop” transportation system proposed by billionaire Elon Musk.
Yet the highlight of the two-day event for many students was a surprise appearance on Saturday by Musk, the SpaceX founder and chief executive officer who first unleashed his Hyperloop idea on the world in August 2013. All weekend, engineering students had been hoping their innovation icon would show up.
“I’m starting to think that this is really going to happen,” said Musk, whose appearance on stage was met with whooping, a standing ovation and requests for selfies, which he politely declined. He spoke briefly and answered several questions from students, some of whom raised hands as teams in an effort to get his attention. “The work that you guys are doing is going to blow people’s minds.”
More than 1 000 students from 20 countries, representing 120 college and three high school teams, had traveled to the Texas A&M University campus for a two-day design competition sponsored by SpaceX. At least 22 teams will advance to the next round, where they may get a chance to build and test their creations at the company’s California headquarters this summer. SpaceX - wanting to leave room for wild cards - made it clear that three to 10 additional teams also could qualify in the coming weeks if they make some tweaks.
More to come
In addition to MIT, Delft and Wisconsin, other teams ranked among the top five were Virginia Tech and the University of California at Irvine. SpaceX, the closely held rocket company based in Hawthorne, California, plans to hold more Hyperloop competitions in the future.
In 2013, Musk first unveiled his vision of a transportation system in which capsules hurtling on a cushion of air would whisk people at 700 miles (1 130 kilometers) per hour, traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour. Musk and his followers see the Hyperloop as a “fifth mode” of transport, and it’s quite possible that the first Hyperloop could be built somewhere else, or abroad.
“All of the other transportation systems - cars, planes, trains, boats - run on fossil fuels,” said Rorisang Posholi, 20, who traveled to Texas from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. “The Hyperloop is a transportation idea that solves all kinds of problems. It’s low energy at high velocity.”
Each team had 20 minutes to present their Hyperloop designs to a panel of judges, with 10 minutes for questions. Judges included university professors as well as engineers from SpaceX and Musk’s Tesla Motors. Besides their highly technical presentations, several teams highlighted not just the cross- disciplinary depth of their engineering talent but business and marketing acumen, complete with Twitter feeds, business cards, small-scale prototypes and highly produced videos. For many of the students, the chance to meet other “Hyperloopers” and share ideas eclipsed the competition aspect of the event.
Samar Abdel Fatta, 22, studies aerospace engineering at Cairo University and flew to Texas by herself. She was the only member of her four-person team who could secure a visa in time to attend, and she spent much of Saturday in front of her booth, located at the very end of a long hallway. The Cairo team won an “innovation award” for their design.
“The Hyperloop is a brand new idea for everyone,” Fatta said in an interview on Saturday. “There is no space program in Egypt, so it’s really hard to get feedback on your ideas. Now I have all of this energy.”
Contests are a tried and true way to give top-flight engineering students real-world experience working on teams - think of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Formula SAE and Design Build Fly, among others. The Obama administration has made improving science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education a top priority, and is also a big fan of using prizes and competition to foster innovation. And the Hyperloop, once just a far-out idea from one of the world’s most recognised entrepreneurs, is gaining traction.
“I was initially skeptical of the idea, but we are thinking of doing some research on it,” US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who gave the event’s keynote address, said in an interview. “Given how much pressure there is on the current system of roads and highways and rail lines, we can’t afford to take any options off the table.”
Foxx said that the ability “to build out current systems gets more and more limited with population density. That’s why this is so important. We need to think radically and differently about how to move ourselves over the next 30 years.”