Days of future present: UC aims to help transform transportation with hyperloop technology work

Students across disciplines seek research muscle
Days of future present: UC aims to help transform transportation with hyperloop technology work
Posted at 8:00 AM, May 28, 2017

CINCINNATI -- Imagine traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco via hyperloop tube in just 30 minutes via nearly airless two-way tubes containing electric-powered, aerodynamic capsules holding people and cargo.

Now, think about University of Cincinnati faculty, students and valued vendors coming together at a multidisciplinary research center to help make all that happen -- here, there and everywhere.

The first "Kitty Hawk" moment for the Hyperloop UC Team, that instant when the impossible became reality, happened in late January 2017 at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. That's when a cross-disciplinary team of approximately 50 UC students became the first team to publicly levitate their competition pod in front of the SpaceX community.

Only student teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Munich Technical University and Delft University successfully completed the weekend-long competition and tested fully functional pods on the SpaceX test track. Meanwhile, the UC students brushed off the mechanical setback that ended their contest role and quickly moved to their second "Kitty Hawk" and a moonshot goal capable of transforming UC.

Shaaban Abdallah is professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering & Applied Science and adviser to the Hyperloop UC team.

Successfully competing against other entries in SpaceX's hyperloop competition is just step one for UC's cross-discipline team of student futurists.

Their true aim is igniting a passion in UC's Board of Trustees, president and provost to invest in the school's first research center and lab for transportation innovation around autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence in transportation and innovative transportation infrastructure, such as a hyperloop track connecting UC's medical and uptown campuses.

"Hyperloop UC is bigger than just the competition," said Julian Gregory, 20, an industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the Hyperloop UC Team.

Joining some of the Hyperloop UC Team's most dedicated student members, Avery Griffin, 19, Sudeshna Mohanty, 27, Siddhant Awasthi, 23, and Isaiah Morgan, 20, at their Rhodes Hall workspace, Gregory and his tech teammates agreed that the extra attention from their competition success has given them the marketability and momentum to foster administration and faculty acceptance for their ideas of a research center based on the cross-discipline model of the Hyperloop UC Team.

"The hyperloop concept is not just science fiction," Gregory said. "It's real, and now the idea of the research center is real.

"With all the different majors involved, we have the potential to bring the hyperloop idea to people in a very real way. I don't think there are a lot of other groups and companies doing it right now."

These diverse research teams can establish UC as a transportation leader. Together, they can build, design and implement key sub systems for the hyperloop supply chain, such as magnets used for levitation or a new power source to replace batteries.

Team members, including freshman student Jacob Gerbracht and their adviser, Shaaban Abdallah, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering Mechanics at UC's College of Engineering & Applied Science, networked during the Smart City summit at Union Hall, Cincinnati's startup hub located in Over-the-Rhine.

They met with veteran evacuated tube transportation and aerial rapid transit entrepreneurs like Loop Global, BeachTran and ET3 Global Alliance CEO Daryl Oster, who invited UC to join their open consortium of tube transport entrepreneurs and researchers.

The timing was perfect. Oster talked about the tube transportation market growing exponentially. UC is close to wrapping a $16 million renovation of the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store on Reading Road into a research hub. The idea is that the transportation center can occupy space in the former Sears building.

"We were the first team to levitate the pod and we got a lot of complements from the other teams," Abdallah said, speaking recently at his Rhodes Hall office. "Now, maybe can we levitate that concept to the faculty level. For the first time ever we have a group of research students from across the university including engineering, DAAP, business, CCM and arts and sciences. Let's take the hyperloop model and create the university's most comprehensive research center, and let's do it at the new research facility."

The hyperloop is an approach to ground transportation that's disruptive and different. It makes sense that the Hyperloop UC Team would inspire their advisers and faculty to build, design and implement a new research center in an equally disruptive way.

Moving their conversation to one of Rhodes Hall's larger work bays, the Hyperloop UC Team members admitted they will not compete at SpaceX's Competition Weekend II in late August. Instead, they'll be busy documenting their hyperloop work and prepping for incoming student members during the fall 2017 semester.

They'll be investigating possible international partnerships with hyperloop teams from Canada and Spain. More importantly, they'll be working hard to make the research center a reality via a fall brainstorm with faculty, outreach for $2 million in corporate seed money and final approval from UC's president and provost.

As far as the business processes, systems and workflows for the planned research center, they said they plan to continue the open source-inspired, cross-discipline nature of the Hyperloop UC Team.

Universities can be adversely competitive, with various colleges locked away in their own research silos. A research center based on the Hyperloop UC model promises to be more diverse than the university's Live Well Collaborative design lab and more successful than its Technology Accelerator for Commercialization.

With a growing number of faculty and deans embracing the project and willing to create new curriculum around it, UC's first student-ignited research center could become reality by 2020.

For UC administrators, the center's return on investment looks very favorable.

Abdallah lists the ability to identify future leaders in science: the ability to attract top students to UC along with top faculty. The center will increase the university's rankings and attract top money.

Of course, the research center is also just one small piece of the overall plan. A hyperloop test track comes along with it.

"I want to build a hyperloop from east campus to west campus over Martin Luther King," Abdallah adds. "All I want to do is levitate a pod and run it with a propeller. Can you imagine the tourists and people it would bring to Cincinnati?"

What Abdallah and his Hyperloop UC Team are saying is that hyperloop will put UC on the map for the 21st century and beyond. It's time to board the pod before it levitates away from the station.