UMD team takes on the future of transportation in Baltimore and beyond

Tomorrow, we have a shot at shaping the future of transportation in Baltimore. We designed and built a levitating “pod,” which we will send hurtling through a one-mile tube — all the while putting the idea of “bullet trains” and open-air “maglevs” to shame.

We are a team of more than 40 physics, engineering, computer science, graphic design, business and communication students at the University of Maryland. We go by the name UMD Loop (www.umdloop.com), and we are competing against 23 teams from around the globe for the top spot in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk proposed a long-distance, high-speed underground transportation system he called “hyperloop” in 2013. It would send passengers or cargo at 700 miles per hour through an underground, vacuum-sealed tube. It takes the old idea of a pneumatic tube that delivered messages from one part of a building to another and stretches it out over great distances, with enough room for passengers.

Last month, Mr. Musk announced that his latest startup, the Boring Company, received verbal government approval to build a hyperloop that would enable travelers to make the trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. — with stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore — in 29 minutes.

Interstate-95 traffic would ease. It would link Baltimore with neighboring cities and offer residents an attractive alternative to air shuttles or conventional rail. A snow storm wouldn’t ground it. It could operate entirely on renewable energy. If developed, this technology could be as transformative as the New York Subway system or the Baltimore-Washington Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train service in the last century.

Almost as innovative, Mr. Musk had the idea of challenging university students to develop the concept by constructing functional prototypes. The approach has worked. Last January, 27 international teams pitted pod against pod in the first SpaceX competition. UMD Loop ranked among the top five for overall design and won the Performance in Operations Award. A team from the Technical University of Munich in Germany proved the fastest.

Tomorrow, we have another go at it, as another three-day trial begins in Hawthorne, Calif. The fastest pod will win. Based on our experiences in January, we refined our design and named our new pod “Nemesis.” We made it 60 pounds lighter. It looks sleeker, with pneumatics and electronics tucked inside the frame. Magnetic brakes with positional control center the pod on the rail when racing down the track, making for a smoother ride. Our magnetic levitation system allows the pod to maneuver on wheels at low speeds and decreases magnetic drag to reach levitation speeds sooner.

Nemesis is a scaled-down model not yet ready for people. No one is ready to drag race these pods. Still, it’s fun to imagine how it might feel to travel this way in a fully controlled environment once the technology is mastered. How did people feel the first time they rode an elevator or flew in an airplane?

Whoever wins, no one loses in this competition. We have worked long hours, even slept in the lab some nights, transforming our fearless ideas into a working model. We secured tools and sponsors, and raised more than a quarter of a million dollars to compete. We have become better learners, doers, innovators, engineers, scientists and leaders — and we will put the skills we learned during these competitions to use once we graduate.

Regardless of how fast our pod goes in Friday’s international competition, we are proud to be representing the state of Maryland as we help speed this imaginative technology to reality.

Allegra Balmadier (abalmadi@terpmail.umd.edu) is the UMD Loop PR lead and Kyle Kaplan (umdloop@gmail.com) is the team captain. Twitter: @umdloop.

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