TUM Hyperloop Team Learns PCB Design on Way to Setting World Speed Record


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At AltiumLive Munich, I met with Tobias Bobrzik, a Technical University of Munich student and member of the TUM Hyperloop team. Hyperloop is an experimental, open-source mode of high-speed rail transportation created by a joint team of Tesla and SpaceX technologists. In 2015, Tesla’s Elon Musk announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition, which he hopes will pave the way for super-high-speed rail in the future.

In 2018, the TUM Hyperloop team’s prototype pod set the world speed record of 290 miles per hour, which lead to their meeting with Musk. Tobias designed some of the PCBs used in that vehicle, so I asked him to tell us more about this experience, and what he hopes to do for a career after he graduates from the university.

Andy Shaughnessy: Tobias, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with this project at the Technical University of Munich.

Tobias Bobrzik: Six years ago, I started with electronics as a hobby including very simple analog circuits like blinking circuits. One year later, I switched to digital circuits and programming microcontrollers. I started with Arduino, then moved over to a professional IDE. By then, I was thinking, “Man, you can really create these PCBs on your own.” I read into some fundamental PCB stuff and started to learn how to work with the Altium software. My hobby of electronics was always next to my main tasks like school or at least university stuff. One year ago, I thought, “Maybe I can bring my hobby together with mechanical engineering.” In the end, I applied to the Hyperloop student team to do mechanical stuff or some electronic development, and then they decided that they need me for PCB design, microcontroller circuits, and sensor readings.

Shaughnessy: Tell me about the TUM Hyperloop team. I know that you’re the most senior member of the group attending this event.

Bobrzik: Our team has about 50 members, divided into several sub-teams like mechanical structure, propulsion or electronics and we developed and built our pod in about six month before the competition last year. Currently the fourth team is working hard on the new pod for the next competition, but for now I just give some advice and make sure that PCB-related things are ready.

Hyperloop Bobrzik.JPG

Shaughnessy: So, you designed one of the boards on this vehicle?

Bobrzik: Yes, I did. I designed the main board, battery board, and the backplane, which was for distributing the signals from the main controller to the cables or the cable harness. The main controller is the heart of the electronics, responsible for controlling the motors, the brakes and calculating different sensor values.

Shaughnessy: Now, you are going for a mechanical engineering degree, but here you are doing PCB design. A lot of new designers I meet are mechanical engineers, and many didn’t know that PCB design was even a career. Do your friends who are not involved in this industry know about this career?

Bobrzik: At first, it sounds very paradoxical. I’m absorbed in mechanical engineering, but mechanical engineers typically try to avoid electronics as much as they can. But at a point, I told myself, “It’s your hobby, and maybe you can combine both of them.” I also think the future lies in between both. The whole world gets more connected. The connection is created by the electronics, and mechanical engineering is also one of the terms that we have to concentrate on such as autonomous vehicles or even the Hyperloop. Therefore, you have to combine both of them as much as you can.

Shaughnessy: What powers this vehicle? I know it’s kind of complicated, but in a nutshell, how does it run?

Bobrzik: It’s an electrically-driven vehicle powered by lithium polymer batteries, which features a very high power-to-weight ratio. This allows a very high acceleration in a short distance.

Shaughnessy: So, it has a lot of batteries that you have to charge. How long do they take to charge?

Bobrzik: It depends on the charger that you use, but we don’t focus on charging time. We charge it overnight.

Shaughnessy: What’s the max speed you can go?

Bobrzik: Our max speed was 467 kilometers per hour.

Shaughnessy: Wow, so around 290 miles per hour.

Bobrzik: It’s hard to imagine.

Shaughnessy: And how many other teams were you competing against?

Bobrzik: There were 20 teams invited by SpaceX in the last competition. For the final round, there were five teams chosen, and they could compete on the final day. Our team was the last one that could run their pod. Everybody was excited, and at the moment Elon Musk showed up, everyone was even more exited. After the tube has been evacuated in about 20 minutes, which have been the longest 20 minutes I can remember, we launched the pod, and everyone got an amazing feeling. As we saw that we had reached a maximum speed of 467 kilometers per hour, we were ecstatic.

Hyperloop PCB.JPG

Shaughnessy: How old are you?

Bobrzik: I’m 22 years old.

Shaughnessy: You mentioned meeting Elon Musk. Do you have any other heroes in the industry that you look up to?

Bobrzik: Not really. Sometimes, I read some interviews with Elon and entrepreneurs who share their experiences in launching a startup.

Shaughnessy: That’s great. Do you ever build things like drones or RC planes?

Bobrzik: Oh yes, I do. In my free time between the semesters, I built drones at home. I design everything on my own, like creating a frame, programming, designing and soldering the electronics. That was also a central project back in school for me because I have learned how to combine actuators like motors with the mechanical structure, for example, and how to integrate everything in the frame.

Shaughnessy: Do you think that you may want to be a circuit board designer? There are so many things you’re learning about, and you can take this in all different directions. I’m just thinking that we need more young circuit board designers; we’re running out of them pretty rapidly.

Bobrzik: I think that electrical engineering is a passion for me, so there will be electrical components in my future projects, too. I really like designing boards because you can create your own system with interfaces to other systems. There’s no way around electronics; I think that PCB design is such a fundamental step you can’t jump over. But in the future, I want to create mechanical structures and machines mainly, while having an eye on the electrical side, too.

Shaughnessy: Great! If you want to be a PCB designer, we’d certainly be glad to have you. Thank you, Tobias.

Bobrzik: Thanks, Andy.

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