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Nothing ‘Boring’ About International Student Competition

UMD Team Wins Safety Award in Elon Musk’s Digging Contest, Encouragement for Future Efforts

By Maryland Today Staff

UMDLoop team

The UMDLoop team poses last month with its tunnel boring machine at the competition site in Las Vegas, where they received the team safety award.

Photo courtesy of UMDLoop team

A University of Maryland team that competes with peers around the world in challenges designed to support a futuristic high-speed train-in-a-tube concept walked away from a tunnel-digging contest in Las Vegas last month among the top four finishers and hoisting the safety award.

What the approximately 25 UMDLoop members didn’t do—actually run their digging machine they’d hand-built on campus—helped them net that prize from the Boring Company, established by billionaire industrialist Elon Musk to revolutionize and dramatically speed up tunnel construction for his Hyperloop project.

Of the 12 teams that qualified last year for the Not-a-Boring Competition (out of an international pool of over 400 applicants), only eight showed up at the desert test site. Among them was the Maryland team, which had wrangled the logistics of trucking their tunnel-boring machine and its approximately 4,000 parts cross-country. Only four—from Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and UMD—were cleared to dig after challenges that included a sandstorm that forced evacuation of the site, followed by an all-nighter by the Terps to get back on track.

“You have a week to prove your system works, that the math you did was correct, that you won’t hurt anyone,” said team leader Shane Bonkowski ’23, an aerospace engineering student. “We made it through all that, and finally we were cleared to dig at 4 a.m. on the morning of the competition.”

As they readied the launch of their tunnel-boring machine—which weighs several tons and excavates a hole 24 inches in diameter—the engineering, physics and computer science Terps realized it was experiencing major problems caused by sensors damaged in shipping. With no speedy remedies available and facing new risks to the equipment and potentially to team members if they attempted the 100-foot boring task at the center of the competition, they withdrew, earning kudos for making a wise choice.

In the end, only the team from the Technical University of Munich was able to move any dirt with their boring machine, and still did not make it 100 feet before grinding to a halt against buried rock.

UMDLoop previously finished in the top six of 24 international teams competing to drive experimental vehicles, or pods, through tunnels in the 2017 SpaceX Hyperloop Challenge. While not exactly satisfied with this year’s outcome, team members are excited about what they’ve accomplished and what’s to come, including an invitation from the Boring Company to return and demonstrate their machine next year.

“I am extremely proud of the work that our team has done. We’re a fully undergraduate-run team, and every decision, every design—it’s just us,” Bonkowski said. “A year ago, we knew literally nothing about soil science, about tunnel boring, any of it. What this team has been able to accomplish and learn in such a relatively short amount of time is really impressive."

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.