Have you ever been stuck in traffic and imagined that your car could take off from the ground in a straight vertical like an AV-8B Harrier II jet?
Me too. But someone else was sitting in traffic and thought about an alternative transportation system that has changed the lives of thousands of engineers. Some guy named Elon. Dismayed with LA traffic and a bullet train proposal in the state of California that would cost tens of billions of dollars while not being nearly as fast or cost-efficient as other train systems like it around the world, Musk wrote a 58-page white paper in 2013 outlining an alternative transportation project that he dubbed “Hyperloop.”
In the paper, Musk describes the Hyperloop as a hypothetical pneumatic tube transportation system that allows up to 28 people to ride at high subsonic speeds in pressurized capsules that sit on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.
Crowdsourcing engineers to address difficult futuristic transportation challenges from Elon Musk is nearly as exciting a concept as crowd surfing engineers at a Residents show. (Image courtesy of SpaceX.)
Musk called on the engineering community to create the Hyperloop and solve any outstanding challenges and bugs.
In response, a subreddit group interested in the Hyperloop project decided to enter and compete in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend, which was hosted by Texas A&M University in January 2016. Knowing that it would be one of the only nonstudent entrants among 115 student engineering teams from 27 U.S. states and 20 countries competing to win, place, or move on to the next stage as one of 20 finalists, the Reddit group had to get busy.
So how does a group of interested strangers from random places around the world even begin to collaborate on such a project?
The clean, smooth design of the R-Pod levitates above a Hyperloop track using powerful electromagnets. The team of crowdsourced (from Reddit) hobbyists transformed its desire and interest in Hyperloop technology into a competitive design entry for SpaceX’s global competition using Autodesk Fusion 360. (Image courtesy of rLoop.)
The task was especially challenging for an expanding group—now swollen to over 250 members—that consists of individuals hailing from 14 countries around the world. The group started by determining which members could perform which tasks on a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive. After getting that sorted out, the team began to search around for an engineering software program that would be a good fit for its noncontiguous situation.
After going through some open-source CAD software, the team landed on Autodesk Fusion 360, the cloud-based CAD/CAM/CAE software platform for product development. After Autodesk expressed interest in partnering with the group, the team was ready to begin its design. It would use Fusion 360 to get organized and busy designing its Hyperloop Pod entry.
The group believed that its combined efforts could give it a chance at being a serious contender to win SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition. But it needed to create and test a competitive design entry over the Internet. It also needed a name. The group decided to call itself rLoop after the name of its subreddit.
The name of its design entry? The R-Pod.
Fusion 360 is one of the new cloud-based engineering software programs that Autodesk CEO Carl Bass is betting the farm on. Transitioning from perpetual licenses to cloud-based subscriptions means that software like Fusion 360 had better be good, improve quickly and pile up case studies where amazing things have been accomplished because of innovative software engineering.
rLoop took advantage of Fusion 360’s innovative and collaborative platform to take turns designing and sharing with each other around the world. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
rLoop couldn’t have provided the Fusion 360 team with a better opportunity to push the cloud-based product development software to its limits. For a distributed team like rLoop, the advantages of using Fusion 360 to develop its Hyperloop Pod are easy to understand. It works on both Mac and Windows computers, and allows you to work from anywhere in the world and collaborate with a distributed team like a bunch of strangers from Reddit.
I was fortunate enough to speak with rLoop’s project manager Brent Lessard (of Canada) and Thomas Lambot (of Belgium), who is the group’s engineering lead.
How did you begin to organize this massive group of Hyperloop enthusiasts?
Lessard: I didn’t really have that much experience with a distributed team, let alone one that focused on large-scale engineering projects such as this one. We’ve had people from Tesla, NASA, etc., on the team. Communication is one thing, but engineering, design, proper documentation, test management and so on was really a learning curve. It basically started with a Google Drive spreadsheet where everybody who’d expressed interest in the project went into further detail about what they felt each could contribute.
What made you decide to use Autodesk’s Fusion 360?
Lambot: It was very convenient for us and came at the right time. Fusion 360 came while we were going through any free open-source CAD software we could find and we had the sense that a reliable cloud-based CAD software would help accelerate our project in particular. Since we are aggressively using it, we are maximizing the software and navigating in and around the limits of Fusion 360, providing feedback to Autodesk along the way.
Lessard: It’s a great new software and when we went to Autodesk, it was very open with us. We took a tour and then sat down with Fusion 360 developers to talk about the way we were using the software, exchanging ideas and specific examples of issues with features in the context of our distributed team. Autodesk has been a large supporter of us from the beginning. We have a Fusion 360 channel and liaison for support or feature requests we’ve been putting a lot of tickets in and adding a lot of collaborators to our cloud project.
Hyperloop Pod Competition Results
Nine members of the rLoop team went to College Station, Tex., to compete in SpaceX’s first competition, where they met in person, in a real room, in real physical space for the very first time. After meeting each other, they presented their design. After answering different queries from judges, members of other teams and the public, the results were in.
The R-Pod design. (Image courtesy of rLoop.)
rLoop members, along with everyone, else listened and watched for the results of the competition. They were ecstatic to hear that their design and team had been selected as the only nonstudent team to advance with 19 other teams as finalists.
What feature of Fusion 360 did you find to be the most crucial in preparing your design for the competition?
Lessard: Version control was a handy feature for us because we have so many hands-in-the-pod. You can go back in history and retrieve anything, which was a huge plus for us, replacing the need to send files back and forth.
Fusion 360 not only enabled rLoop to design concurrently, but made it possible to save versions, add and share comments, as well as keep track of tasks and save everything securely in the cloud. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
SpaceX is building an analogous test track at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Teams like rLoop will get a chance to test their scaled-up Hyperloop pods on Jan. 27–29, 2017.
Everything yielded from the Hyperloop Pod Competition continues to be open sourced, which fits in perfectly with the ethos maintained at rLoop.
We wish rLoop the best of luck for the conclusion of this first Hyperloop Pod Competition.
But this isn’t a one-off; the fun will continue. SpaceX is planning on having a Hyperloop Competition II. It might as well be called “Hyperloop 2: Need for Speed,” because maximum speed will be the sole focus of the follow-up competition.
Autodesk has sponsored ENGINEERING.com to write this article. It has provided no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Andrew Wheeler