Engineering In Action

Faster than a snail

Student-led MIT Hyperloop team one of twelve to compete in a tunnel digging competition to demonstrate drilling technology

Kate S. Petersen | Image: Monthep Parimontonsakul | School of Engineering

On September 12, the student-led group, MIT Hyperloop III will be presenting a machine learning-augmented drilling technology at Elon Musk’s ‘Not-A-Boring’ competition to be held in the Mojave Desert. The competition is sponsored by Musk’s The Boring Company, which he founded to pursue hyperloop technology. MIT Hyperloop III was selected as one of twelve groups, the “Digging Dozen,” to participate in the competition out of an applicant pool of over 400 teams.

An alternative to conventional high speed train systems, hyperloop would propel small passenger or cargo pods through above or below-ground tubes at speeds in excess of 700 mph. A nearly frictionless environment could be achieved by evacuating the air from the tubes and using either magnets or air jets to keep the transport pods afloat. The system could be powered with solar panels, which could help provide the clean energy necessary to reduce standard travel times from hours to minutes.

Musk appealed to the world’s engineering community to make hyperloop a reality and MIT students formed a team, MIT Hyperloop, to work on the problem in 2015. Over the years, successive iterations of the group have tackled different aspects of hyperloop technology, gaining recognition for their work along the way. The contemporary MIT Hyperloop III team, which now includes faculty, alumni, and research fellows, is no exception. The group recently entered two hyperloop technology designs in the European Hyperloop Week (EHW) competition and placed fifth out of 24 teams.

One design that MIT Hyperloop III entered into the EHW was a novel secondary propulsion system.

“In this competition, we tried to reimagine an established method of defense technology…that will allow you to get that pod up to faster speeds over shorter distances,” says Aleks Siemenn, an MIT Hyperloop III engineer and PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The team’s proposed system would augment the use of linear induction motors (LIMs), which are often put forward as a technology to propel hyperloop. An assisted launch of the pod by a second electromagnetic propulsion technology could quickly accelerate the craft to speeds that are most efficient for LIMs propulsion, conserving energy. LIMs could then take over for the rest of the trip.

The team also showcased their regenerative braking tech design at EHW.

“Full-scale Hyperloop pods running at around 700 miles per hour will contain large amounts of kinetic energy,” says Michael Forsuelo, MIT Hyperloop III team captain and graduate student in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “If we can recover that kinetic energy into energy storage systems, we can further increase sustainability of this promising form of technology.”

The team’s proposed design features a hybrid energy storage system consisting of supercapacitors and lithium-ion batteries. The two types of storage offer complimentary power and energy density, with the supercapacitors supporting the lithium-ion batteries during propulsion and improving the recovery of kinetic energy during braking. 

“What I really like about what this club is that it integrates a lot of the skills and knowledge that I've been learning as part of my PhD into developing this technology that has a much wider and direct scale and impact,” says Crystal Owens, PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Hyperloop III engineering team member.

During the ‘Not-A-Boring’ competition, each team will be challenged to drill a scaled-down version of a hyperloop tunnel, says Marcelle Durrenberger, graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT Hyperloop III team member. The team will drill a 30-meter tunnel with a 50 cm diameter and then a small remote-controlled Tesla will drive through. “It's a smaller proof of concept of what we can do with drilling technology,” she says.  

Teams will be judged based on guidance system accuracy and tunneling speed, although the speed requirements are surprisingly small.

“The goal of the competition is to tunnel faster than a snail,” says Bruce Hecht, a team member and graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering. “We looked it up. It's on the order of one meter per hour for fast snails and fast machines…”

Developing hyperloop technology is about more than overcoming engineering obstacles, however. Acquiring research and development financing for futuristic, promising, but unproven technologies is also a challenging task. Because of this, MIT Hyperloop III includes members from the MIT School of Engineering, the Sloan School of Management, and various interdisciplinary programs that include business and project management components.

According to Navraj Deol MBA ‘21, MIT Hyperloop III business lead and recent graduate of the Sloan School of Management, business-oriented members “work synergistically with the engineers” by carrying out the marketing, fundraising, and corporate partnership and sponsorship development necessary to drive the team’s hyperloop technology forward.

For many MIT Hyperloop III team members, the competitions represent an exciting opportunity to bring their education out of the classroom by collaborating with a global community to eventually create a functioning hyperloop system. Amrutha Killada, the MIT Hyperloop III Sponsorship manager and graduate student in the Integrated Design and Management program at MIT, says that there are both technological and social aspects of this effort.

“Right now, what you see is…fossil fuel transportation and slowly the world is shifting to electric vehicles...but I think hyperloop is much more than that in offering the world a better option for transportation,” she says. It’s about “creating awareness that something like this exists in the world.”

MIT Hyperloop III would like to recognize their collaborators on the Imperial College London hyperloop team, ICLoop, as well as Omneity Innovations and Barbco for their material support and mentorship, and Jordan Beer for helping to coordinate material logistics for the Not-a-Boring Competition.



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