How would you approach a moonshot project? A project that would revolutionise and transform our transportation network. Sitting in traffic would be a thing of the past, sounds pretty good right? Members of the SpaceX subreddit had an idea, and they also had the motivation. With the announcement of an open competition in 2015 to design and build Elon Musk's Hyperloop pod, engineers across the globe were captivated.
Put simply, the Hyperloop is an evacuated tube designed to carry passengers within capsules from A to B quicker than any contemporary transport system. It's being hailed as the fifth great transport modality, but first... you've got to build one.
It all started when a member of the SpaceX subreddit suggested that maybe, just maybe they could pool their resources and be competitive. After all, that particular subreddit had over 66,000 members at the time, many of whom had industry experience or were engineering students. rLoop was formed, several hundred volunteered their time and experience and in the end, came up with a convincing enough design that, when presented to Tesla and SpaceX was selected to continue to final stage of the competition, the manufacturing stage. The circumstances of the hyperloop competition and the building of rLoop has given engineers an opportunity to participate in a passion driven project. An opportunity that doesn't come around too often, with a view to fundamentally change the way we travel and pushing tech forwards.
rLoop wasn’t working in this space without controversy however - towards design weekend it was clear that the university based teams were heavily favoured. The initial (and reasonable) motivation to make the competition the exclusive preserve of educational institutions was the fear of large corporates with bottomless reservoirs of finance beating out college students with substantially less funds. rLoop of course sat in the middle of an unfortunate venn diagram, representing an external source of innovation but labouring under zero funds. Luckily, the organisers saw the value in this distributed expertise team and have advanced them to the final stages of the competition.
Organising so many people into an enormous engineering experiment has been as much of a challenge as the engineering itself. So how did they turn the discussions of online enthusiasts to tangible, competitive design? First, you create a spreadsheet. Members were asked to present details about their interests and their backgrounds. It's important to note that anyone can sign up and bring effectively any expertise they can. The project was divided into sub-systems to create teams, focussing on mechanical engineering, social media, graphic design, etc and the free movement between the groups is encouraged. In fact even at this late stage, as the project has moved firmly into the build-phase, rLoop still has people joining! Naturally you need to keep everyone on the same page and with a project with globally distributed members (that hadn't met in real life until 8 months into the project), tech had to play an important role. And the systems used to make rLoop's project manager's life easier? Slack for communications, Trello for task management and GitHub for software development. With a globally distributed team, the project can be active around the clock even with part-time contributors.
But Elon Musk is a charismatic character, and the hyperloop is an inspirational moonshot project; what about other areas of science and engineering that may not feature such a compelling backdrop? Could we point the power of a subreddit in the direction of another area of science and engineering? Everyone on rLoop is sacrificing their time to work on a project they love without financial compensation. The uncertain road to ROI is always a problem for corporations that may want to back science. But rLoop were approached in the end by Soylent. They loved the project and wanted to be involved. This is a prototype that has the potential to change the world - perhaps rLoop are a unique case but their values were aligned with the corporate sponsor and that itself was deemed a valuable enough incentive.
rLoop has demonstrated that community driven projects utilising online open source tools and an engaged and passionate user base can build a pretty awesome product, so maybe this could be a generalisable model...
What will be next?