Spotlight on: Berkeley Hyperloop

Berkeley Hyperloop, currently crowdfunding for a January 2017 launch, is taking on an ambitious design challenge — and it’s part of a rich ecosystem of Berkeley students applying classroom learning and hands-on design skills to real-world challenges.

“That’s my favorite thing to do — to take something that seems impossible, and then do it.”

Tyler Chen is talking about the hyperloop — a proposed method of super-fast transit, still in its nascent stages of conceptualization, that would involve traveling at 700 miles per hour via low-pressure tube. It’s easy to dismiss the concept as impossible, but that doesn’t faze Chen: he’s the project manager for the Berkeley Hyperloop team (also known as bLoop), a group of Berkeley students participating in an international student competition to design “pods” that could transport passengers through the futuristic-seeming hyperloop system.

bLoop has been working on its pod design since soon after Elon Musk, who introduced the concept of the hyperloop, and his company, SpaceX, announced the competition in summer 2015. bLoop team members describe the group’s start, which grew from word of mouth and shared interests in Musk’s concept, as largely informal. “We were so scrappy,” laughs bLoop co-founder and external relations lead Helen Kou, reminiscing on evenings spent talking through the idea over Google Hangouts. As interested students and fledgling hyperloop groups on campus began to coalesce around what would become the bLoop team, the team’s members laid groundwork for growth.

As a first step, they familiarized themselves with the concepts laid out in Musk’s white paper on Hyperloop, steeping themselves in theory and starting to sketch out ideas and flowcharts on whiteboards in library meeting rooms. They wrote down all the possible flaws in the hyperloop system they could think of, sought advice from professors, dove into calculations. At the same time, team leaders began to build a structure for the ambitious process that pod design would require, identifying key focus areas and effective workflows. This involved “a lot of learning about what was the most engaging way to create a team, maintain a team, and run a team,” says Kou.

Since these early days, the team has been broken into an array of smaller groups, from sub-teams working on braking/acceleration, levitation, and the pod’s chassis to groups focusing on logistics or external relations. To coordinate these distributed efforts, sub-team leads meet weekly, touching base on design goals and next steps. This has proved particularly helpful as bLoop has navigated areas like budget management and shifting requirements from the competition organizers, allowing the team to more nimbly respond to changes and to design within constraints.

bLoop’s first months were filled with this kind of collaborative work, from working through complex calculations to refining CAD models of the pod design. In January 2016, the team traveled to Texas, where it competed in the first phase of the competition: a design review with the competition organizers from SpaceX. Out of over 115 teams that had submitted designs (representing 27 states and 20 countries), bLoop was chosen as one of just 22 teams that would move onto the next phase — building a physical prototype to compete on a hyperloop test track. Today, the team is hard at work as they prepare for this second phase, which will take place in January 2017. A typical Saturday finds students at bLoop’s workspace at the Richmond Field Station, fabricating pod elements or talking through the latest iteration of their design.

Images from the team’s simulations and pod design process.

Team members say that these hours spent working on the pod have complemented lessons from class, linking academic concepts with tangible applications. “I’m really starting to see a connection in how the concepts we learn in class apply to something like hyperloop,” says Emily Ma, who is studying industrial engineering and operations research and serves as the team’s logistics lead. Other students agree, from team co-founder Ray Chen, who can draw a direct link between classes like aerodynamics and his work as the team’s chassis lead, to Tyler Chen, who notes that although hyperloop doesn’t directly connect to his career goals in materials science and bioengineering, the problem-solving approaches he’s picked up through the project will inform his work in courses and beyond.

Students also note that their work on bLoop has given them skills in the dynamic, sometimes messy processes that drive real-world innovation. “Each time we go through a design round, we realize ‘this isn’t working, that isn’t working,’” Tyler Chen explains. “Then we iterate again and go onto a new pod design, with things that are different — and usually better.” Team members agree that learning to work within this kind of flexible design process has been a valuable learning experience in itself. “I’ve become really familiar with designing, prototyping, testing, and leading a team through this kind of iterative process,” notes bLoop’s R&D lead, Mira Tipirneni.

Beyond gaining skills in working collaboratively with each other, team members also emphasize that their design process has prompted them to look outward, exploring the contexts that surround the hyperloop concept. From the start, the team has focused on safety and passenger comfort, rather than sheer speed or performance, in its pod design. “If [hyperloop] is not safe and people don’t want to ride in it, there’s no point in making it go fast,” explains Tyler Chen, emphasizing bLoop’s focus on designing for real people and real needs.

This focus on people and context has prompted the team to venture into unexpected areas, particularly within the R&D team that Mira Tipirneni leads. The Hyperloop concept, Tipirneni explains, exists in conversation with diverse communities and systems, and it’s important for her team to consider these perspectives. “In R&D we try to have a really interdisciplinary mix, because we don’t just work on projects related to the engineering aspects alone. Our projects also involve economic impacts, public policy, user experience,” she comments. “That’s a big part of our work — looking at this issue from every angle possible.”

Team members who study architecture, for example, are considering what a hyperloop station might look and feel like, viewing the ostensible focus of the hyperloop competition —pod design—in the broader context of a complete user experience, from starting point to destination. Meanwhile, other students have suggested talking to farmers’ associations, pointing to the potential effects of hyperloop construction on agricultural land along likely routes. Emily Ma sees this interdisciplinarity continuing to grow, noting that when interviewing potential new members at the start of the semester, the team met students from disciplines ranging from mechanical engineering to English. “I was pleasantly surprised by how popular we were during interviews,” agrees Ray Chen, and Ma adds, “The hyperloop concept is so unifying.”

Team bLoop.

The team sees this shared desire to take on big, interdisciplinary problems as rooted in Berkeley’s identity and community. “We’re a public school, and we tend to be very service-oriented,” says Helen Kou, noting the team’s passenger-centered, community-minded approach to pod design. As they have worked on bLoop, team members have been aware of their belonging in a wider community of Berkeley students taking up pressing challenges — and they find this student-led ethos of forging new paths inspiring. “You start out thinking, ‘I could never make that,’” says Mira Tipirneni. “But in the end, you really do have what it takes to build crazy things. You learn to apply what you learn in class to the real world.” Emily Ma notes that the opportunity to contribute to this kind of problem-solving has added new meaning to her studies and her work. “When you have something that you care about this much,” she says, “you really feel that you’re making a difference, that you have a purpose.”

Berkeley Hyperloop is currently crowdfunding to support their January 2017 launch. Learn more about bLoop and support their crowdfunding campaign, open through the month of October.

By Laura Mitchell