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Student Spotlight College of Engineering Students Compete in SpaceX Hyperloop Competition By Lini S. Kadaba, Freelance Writer
DrexelNow

Imagine zooming between cities in a high-speed transportation pod at 700-plus miles an hour, all the while levitated above a small pocket of air. Cool, right?

Now imagine designing, engineering, manufacturing, marketing a prototype of that very pod, all from scratch and while still an undergraduate student. For about 80 students at Drexel University, that is out-of-this-world, hyper cool.

“This is not just a project you do in school,” says Om Mahida, 22, a junior computer engineering student from Mount Laurel, N.J., who’s involved in software development for the pod’s control system. “You’re basically running your own start up.”

Known as Drexel Hyperloop, the team raced to put finishing touches on its ambitious concept—a bullet-like capsule with a Drexel Dragon logo, all for the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. At a January 29-30 Design Weekend at Texas A&M University, 120 college teams from the U.S. and around the world presented ideas for this new mode of ground transportation to SpaceX, the space transportation company of CEO and inventor Elon Musk, academics, and other judges. Most teams focused on a subsystem, but Drexel Hyperloop is among the few that decided to take on the whole shebang, down to a design for a pod transit station.

Those that made the cut—meaning they secured tech company sponsors to build prototypes that can cost upwards of $60,000—advance to the Big Dance this summer at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. There, teams will test subsystems or the speed of model pods on a mile long Hyperloop, which is the near-vacuum transportation tube that Musk proposed in 2013.

Drexel Hyperloop
The concept works like this: Pods for either passengers or cargo float on a very thin air cushion to minimize friction, the main culprit that limits speed, and as a result attain miles per hour, at least theoretically, close to Mach 1. Think of it as a puck on an air-hockey table. A six-hour car ride between Los Angeles and San Francisco would be cut to a mere 30 minutes on a Hyperloop. The contest, its website says, is a way to accelerate the development of the best system.

“We have a great chance of doing very well in this competition,” says Richard Crane, 23, of Litchfield, Connecticut, a mechanical engineering major whose senior project encompasses his work on air bearings for the Hyperloop team.

Crane does some quick calculations and points out that the team of sophomores to seniors has cumulative co-op experience of 90-plus years and has already put in more than 20,000 hours on the team since the process kicked off last June.

“I didn’t go home over Christmas break,” he says. “I stayed here all three weeks and did [simulation] testing.”

Crane, like a lot of the team members, enjoys a challenge. In fact, he became an engineer in large part because a high school physics teacher doubted, based on his struggles in the class, that he had what it took. “I decided to take the challenge,” he says. “I’ve made it to my senior year and hopefully I’ll finish strong.” In fact, Crane did co-ops at SpaceX and was invited to return after graduation for a trial run at a job.

Mahida’s co-ops were at Lockheed Martin, where he focused on software for signal processing of radar systems. He has been developing an AI assistant that eliminates the need for other apps. For example, you simply send a message on Facebook and Slack to set reminders, ask for weather, or even tell you jokes.

Mahida says he joined the Hyperloop competition because he takes great satisfaction in figuring out software hiccups.

“Every meeting we have, something new pops up,” he says of the team debriefings, “and we fix it right away.”

The Drexel Hyperloop team is among 22 teams who have been chosen to advance in the 2016 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition after their initial design was presented January 29-30. The next step will be developing and presenting a prototype in June, 2016.

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