Next Generation Pioneers

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop competition has inspired next generation pioneers from the University of Wisconsin ­Madison to take one step closer to the future.

In popular culture, Millennials are often characterized by a lack of productivity, cultural obsession, and a general sense of self entitlement. Generation We, as it is often referred to, fosters a culture of instant gratification and constant connectivity. Often viewed in a negative light, Millennials far outnumber their Baby Boomer predecessors and are critiqued for their way of commanding a world they feel is apparently their rightful playground. Although Millennials are overlooked and disregarded in the eyes of older generations, a small group of them are taking advantage of their unique upbringing in a period of constant change and advancement, mixed with an access to unlimited knowledge. This combination has given us the next generation pioneers and thinkers, who, at this moment, are changing the world as we know it. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Hyperloop pod team, BadgerLoop, personifies the success and growth of next generation pioneers.

In 2015, Elon Musk’s Space X announced that they would sponsor a previously unheard of Hyperloop competition. The competition, which garnered the attention of university and independent engineering teams alike, sought to build upon Musk’s 2013 concept of next generation travel in order to make it a reality. In their official release, SpaceX stated, "While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype." Private companies have chosen to pursue the effort of creating a functional and accessible Hyperloop, and the open competition seeks to feature science in an attainable light. The competition culminates in a test-run on a one-mile test track at SpaceX’s California headquarters, bringing us that much closer to the transportation of the future. BadgerLoop not only rose to the challenge to create and build a human-scaled pod for the competition, but they created something else along the way: a small startup company.

The entire BadgerLoop team was comprised of over 100 members. What struck me as I interviewed three of its key constituents—Sidney Smith, Max Goldberg, and David Vanveen—was not only that they were intelligibly knowledgeable in all things Hyperloop (as well as their ongoing undergraduate engineering classes), but that in assembling a team of U-W’s most passionate and qualified, they created their own small company. By entering the Hyperloop competition, their analytical and problem solving skills were put to the test, and they also faced challenges in terms of organization, budget, and communication. BadgerLoop succeeded in taking the initiative to not only create a future for us all through the Hyperloop endeavor, but they have managed to create a future for themselves as young men and women in the post-graduate career driven world. This initiative is a refreshing reminder to people of all ages that the Millennial generation has great potential; for the BadgerLoop team, the future doesn’t have to wait. They’re creating it.

Photo by Eric Schirtzinger

OMNI: What is the Hyperloop?

BadgerLoop: The Hyperloop is a new, revolutionary form of transportation focused on efficiency and clean energy. Embodying futuristic ideas with technological capability, this mode of transportation will move people and cargo from city to city through a network of pressurized tubes at speeds greater than 700 mph. Being in a vacuum, there is hardly any air to inhibit motion of the pod; whereas cars and trains experience major energy losses due to aerodynamic drag.

What in particular makes your design unique from other competing teams?

The BadgerLoop pod is similar to other teams in some aspects, yet very different in others. Four of the top five teams (BadgerLoop included) are using the same type of magnetic levitation—a specific arrangement of permanent magnets called a Halbach Array. Many teams utilize an aerodynamic shell and some form of alloy metal structural framing.

What makes BadgerLoop’s design unique are two specific features. One is the propulsion system: Halbach Wheels. These wheels are contactless magnetic wheels that spin at a certain distance from the center I-beam of the track, providing thrust force and lateral stability force. Halbach Arrays induce a non-negligible amount of magnetic drag, and the BadgerLoop team is one of very few to attempt to negate this inefficiency. In fact, the Halbach Wheels designed by BadgerLoop are the largest in the world and have never been utilized in this way.

The second most unique aspect of the pod is the robust electrical and control system, created with multiple levels of redundancy to ensure a safe and successful run.

What is the inspiration behind the name and the design?

As Badgers (the mascot of UW-Madison where we attend school), we are very proud of our school and city; from our sports culture, to our social atmosphere, to the beautiful lakes surrounding the city of Madison, Wisconsin.

Deciding on our name, we wanted to convey the enthusiasm that we feel as a part of the UW-Madison community; and what better way than to include Bucky Badger in our team name.

From the beginning, it was our intention to build the entire pod on campus. This motivation drove much of the design. From the carbon fiber shell down to brackets holding the wires where they need to be, each component is able to be purchased and manufactured on campus by students, or manufactured on campus by the College of Engineering resources and professionals. This brings costs down and allows us to be confident in our ability to manufacture our pod in the timeline provided by SpaceX.

Photo by Eric Schirtzinger

Tell us about Design Weekend, it must have been incredibly exciting…

Heading into Design Weekend, our team was a mixture of tired, excited, and nervous. We hadn’t been able to finish our demos in time, so we packed up most of our lab equipment in addition to our luggage for the 17-hour drive to Texas A&M University. As soon as we arrived in Texas, we converted two of the four hotel rooms into "labs" in order to continue work on the demos; Some members stayed up the whole night to finish.

During that drive down, everyone’s excitement started to build. We even practiced talking about our systems during the car ride to prepare for the competition. And that’s when it hit us; It all became real. We were going to be at an event with some of the smartest, most forward thinking engineers and engineering students on the planet, creating something that began as a mere dream and was now a feasible reality.

That first day of Design Weekend turned feelings of excitement into disbelief. Our design was one of the best and our booth demos were unparalleled. Nobody on our team was expecting that… and we rode that wave of euphoria the entire weekend. A rewarding weekend was then capped off the following evening with the announcement of our 3rd place finish and listening to Elon Musk speak.

The amount of different Hyperloop designs from team to team was mind boggling. I’d say that the closest any two designs got to one another was 20 percent. The feeling was unparalleled—that all of these amazing teams were collaborating and contributing to the first Hyperloop prototypes being built. Everyone wants the Hyperloop concept to succeed and become a reality.

Not only did the competition unite all of the teams, but it brought our own team closer. We had been so busy working in our specialized areas on the BadgerLoop that we never got to truly know each other. Camaraderie rose in a huge way during Design Weekend and when we drove back to Wisconsin, the next step of our journey began.

What makes your team unique and diverse?

Our team is composed of over 100 students; primarily engineering, business, and physics. These students comprise of 95+ undergraduate, full-time students. We even have some great freshman on the team like Max Goldberg, Eric Schirtzinger and Max Henry. Being that we are students, we need to work intensely to develop the next big form of transportation while also keeping up in classes. One of our biggest challenges is ensuring that all of the individual sub-teams are organized and cohesive. Since everyone is willing to improve and grow together in all aspects, organization and communication are some of our biggest strengths as a team.

We are all eager to learn and driven to build this pod, both symbolizing the potential of aspiring engineers and inspiring STEM innovation in all onlookers. This common aspiration allows us pure intentions in our work, with self interest taking a back seat to team fluidity.

The product for Design Weekend, our final design, was completed by 50ish active members, with one graduate student, done entirely in the student’s free time over the first semester.

Photo by Eric Schirtzinger

Let’s talk about the original 5-10 members. What did everyone think when the competition was announced? Did you ever imagine you’d be doing something like this in college?

When the competition was announced, the original members were all extremely excited and motivated. This was a task that excited the entrepreneur part of the team, as well as our engineering and artistic passions. We were immediately hooked. A few texts and emails were exchanged, and within five days our team consisted of somewhere between five and 10 students, and only continued to grow from there once we set an organizational structure to start heavy recruitment across campus.

If you would have told us freshman year that we’d be helping design and build a Hyperloop pod, we would have laughed you out of the room. We never could have imagined the depth to which we would have been involved in an organization developing such a bleeding-edge and innovative technology as the Hyperloop system.

What is BadgerLoop as a student organization? What is it as a small "start-up" company?

Originally, it started as a student organization with the goal of gaining relevant engineering experience in a unique field. BadgerLoop has now grown to encompass much more. We believe that part of our success has come from functioning similarly to a fast paced "start-up" in addition to an engineering competition student organization.

As a student organization, we focus on providing a learning experience for any passionate individual—regardless of background—who is excited to be involved with an organization that is pushing the boundaries of transportation innovation. We represent the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in competition, on campus, and through outreach events. Education and inspiration are core values of BadgerLoop, geared towards the entire population: from young children all the way to seasoned professionals.

Beyond the technical challenges of the Hyperloop, we feel that these values are what SpaceX hoped to instill through the medium of the competition. Due to the accelerated timeline and technical robustness required by the implementation of cutting edge technology as part of this competition, BadgerLoop has taken on the feel of a fast-paced startup.

Over the last eight months, the team has accumulated 150+ students, faculty advisors, and industry advisors; has designed a 15' levitating vehicle accompanied by a 272 slide technical design package; has fundraised more than $45,000; and has manufactured multiple interactive prototypes demonstrating various systems of the pod. Accomplishing these tasks has required many sleepless nights, too much coffee, and more design iterations than there have been weeks of school. Being a part of this competition and the BadgerLoop organization has been the best experience imaginable for young, motivated, big-dreaming students.

Does your student life pale in comparison to this competition, and how has it affected your college life?

It really depends on who you talk to on the team. Some see BadgerLoop invaluable to gaining experience alongside engineering courses, developing analytical, engineering, and problem solving skills. But at the same time, it’s difficult to focus 100 percent on school with BadgerLoop’s success. BadgerLoop, by its very nature, gives us a real world experience in the field of engineering and also in the field of business. It by far is the most value-added activity that we are participating in currently. Others see BadgerLoop as the beginning of the future where you can gain tangible skills and experience from this project that far supersede the benefit of learning classroom techniques.

Now that BadgerLoop has succeeded thus far, it has become the most important thing for a lot of the team. It adds so much experience working in a cross-functional organization that school simply cannot offer. BadgerLoop, in a sense, is a new form of education.

Photo by Eric Schirtzinger

What does Hyperloop mean for the future of our society?

The creation of Hyperloop means the high-speed connection of people, places, and things never before seen. In distances between cities where it is too short for a plane and too far for a train or car, the Hyperloop is most efficient. It will allow people to live and work hundreds of miles away from one another. It will allow the transportation of goods faster than ever seen before. All in all, it will completely revolutionize how humanity views traveling from place to place—cleanly and eco friendly! Elon Musk and the Tesla/SpaceX/Hyperloop culture has reignited the desire for man to go farther and reach destinations faster.

How does BadgerLoop hope to leave its mark in the worlds of science, engineering, business, and even education?

Our goal is to lay the groundwork for the future of transportation technology while also being one of the first (or the first) successful hyperloop pods launched. It’s also a breeding ground for aspiring engineers. Bringing back engineering recognition to UW-Madison College of Engineering is a side-treat along the way to achieving our goals.

Aside from Hyperloop Technologies, Inc. and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, we are some of the most knowledgeable Hyperloop engineers in the world, and we want to share that with everyone. With our research and design, we see that the Hyperloop is possible, and this excites us. We want to share that excitement via education. Accomplishing this task will help show how limitless the boundaries of science, engineering, and business innovation and progress really are. The success of BadgerLoop within this competition will give the young generation of engineers and peers a taste of a truly futuristic, green technology that has seemed impossible to many.

Is the Hyperloop competition only the beginning for next generation thinkers? What kinds of competitions might we see in the future?

YES! The Hyperloop competition is the tip of the iceberg—the next generation of thinkers is going to come in with a bang… Our generation is hyper-aware of the problems that have been created throughout the world in all areas of life over the past two centuries due to the explosion of the internet. The world has never been more interconnected. Just look at this competition: inspiring 126 student teams representing more than 20 countries to develop designs for a Hyperloop system. All in six months or less. This is incredible and goes to show how motivated the next generation thinkers are; competitions like this do wonders for technological advancements.

Wouldn’t it be crazy to see large scale engineering competition challenges of the likes of this Hyperloop pod competition, put on by large corporations, to solve the world’s most pressing issues? Some of those being: greenhouse gas pollution, the redistribution of wealth, the redistribution of the world’s food resources, cleaning the ocean, dealing with the soon-to-be overpopulation of the planet and much more. Having competitions in these areas, and these competitions being defined and fast-paced, gives next generation thinkers interested in those areas something tangible to work toward. In a world filled with distractions, sometimes a competition like this is what it takes to inspire great thinkers.

What is the next step for BadgerLoop’s participation in the competition?

BadgerLoop is actively working to construct our one-ton, 15' pod. We will complete construction and launch the pod on SpaceX’s test track in Hawthorne, CA in early to mid August (exact dates TBD). During this stage we are actively fundraising in order to achieve and surpass our construction budget of $80,000 to ensure success and potential victory in this competition. Between tooling, testing, and validating prototypes, we’re shooting for $130,000 in monetary donations. Although, in our eyes, every team that launches a successful pod or fully constructs a pod is a victor in some way!

What has BadgerLoop done for your future post-graduate life?

The testimonials from our members sum it up the best:

  • "BadgerLoop has opened doors that I didn’t know existed for my future career. Coming out of college, everyone involved in this team will have the best resumes to enter a career in the field of Hyperloop technology. BadgerLoop has made me aware of what it is like to start, manage, and communicate within an organization that is 100+ people in size. This experience is unsurpassed by any other that I can imagine and is so beneficial for post-graduate life." –Sid
  • "I have no idea what I want to do with my life, so I just continue to work hard and follow my passion. BadgerLoop has encompassed this perfectly providing a stellar learning experience surrounded by intensely brilliant and motivated people. What I do with this in the future is anyone’s guess. Dedicating the rest of my life to Hyperloop sounds incredible, but so does being a doctor in a third world country. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time." –Dave
  • "This competition has affirmed my passion for creating and hopefully it is only the beginning of my involvement with such extraordinary projects. Graduation is three years away, but I can already tell life as a professional engineer and innovator will be invigorating." –Max

Natasha Sydor
Natasha Sydor

French-born travel enthusiast. Enters the Hamilton lottery everyday (and doesn't want to talk about the results). Maybe one day she’ll be an extra in a Star Wars film... 

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Next Generation Pioneers