SJSU students to unveil their innovative solar-powered Automated Transit Network design at upcoming Maker Faire

All aboard the ATN

When you think about Silicon Valley, usually innovation comes to mind – next might be traffic congestion. With the INIST collaboration, SJSU Spartans focus on both. Professor Burford Furman challenged his mechanical engineering students to pursue INIST’s design challenge – the Spartan Superway project to create a solar-powered ATN is the result. The Spartan team won a $5,000 prize for their submission. There were about 20 students who participated with the founding Spartan Superway team, but since then, that number has nearly tripled.

Preparing for Maker Faire, Cory Ostermann, controls team, on left, with Paolo Mercado, bogie team, test one of the 1/12th scale model pods on the ATN guideway (Randall Morioka is kneeling, Man Ho in the back).
Connecting the cabin to the bogie. Students attach a mock-up of the cabin to the movable support that travels along the guideway.

It takes an enormous network of players to design and develop the ATN system – eight design teams, four colleges (Davidson College of Engineering, College of Business, College of Humanities and the Arts, College of Social Sciences), including approximately 100 students over four semesters, faculty, alumni, program managers, corporate mentors, advisors and donors, and government leaders in six Bay Area cities.

“The ATN system, which is projected to cost less to construct and maintain than existing mass transit, provides an alternative to the personal automobile and public transportation,” explains Furman. “ Since the guideways will be co-located within, but elevated above, existing transit rights of way, it’s collection of solar power won’t require additional land use, making the ATN design more sustainable than existing solutions. Passengers will be able to come to the station, push a button for a podcar, and be transported to their destinations more quickly,” he says.

2014-05-10 Cabin Bogie on Guideway for Maker Faire Exhibit

Cory Ostermann, a senior, in mechatronics who serves as lead on the hardware controls team, has worked at least 30 hours a week to get ready for Maker Faire. “The Spartan Superway isn’t just another class project,” Ostermann says. “It’s been a unique opportunity to work in an environment more akin to an industry internship, with multiple teams of engineers working towards a common goal. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to affect change in the world and help shape the future,” he says.

Adds senior Marjo Mallari, computer engineering, who joined the Superway team when she enrolled in the two-semester senior project class, “I wanted to pursue a project that was complex and interesting, one with the potential to provide a legacy for future projects or make an impact on society. The suspended railway design for a personal rapid transit system captivated me because it was a fresh and challenging engineering solution to the traffic problems that commuters face every day,” she declares.

“One of the great side benefits of this project is the interest from industry leaders who encourage us to continue,” says Ostermann. “SJSU’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley is a huge advantage for students because sustainability is supported and encouraged in the region. Also, close proximity to major tech companies opens doors for students to get involved in innovative and progressive projects like the ATN, and these successful tech veterans are committed to student success.”

A visualization of the ULTra Personal Rapid Transit system, the ATN system used at Heathrow Airport.
A visualization of the ULTra Personal Rapid Transit system, the ATN system used at Heathrow Airport.

Future stops – the sky’s the limit

The future seems bright for this enterprise – with limitless possibilities to expand. “It’s exciting to consider all the possibilities to increase the academic connections for this effort on campus,” concludes Furman. “For example, sociologists can help us understand what people value in personal mobility; economists can determine the impact of ATN on the automobile industry, new industries, or economic changes if car ownership and usage is reduced; environmentalists can explain the impact on the environment if ATN is widely adopted; and communications/marketing professionals can help us educate the public about a new transportation paradigm.”

However, funding is critical, reports Furman. To expand the effort, SJSU has applied for an NSF grant of $10.2 million, in conjunction with several institutions and international partners. “We’ve not yet scratched the surface of seeking funding from other sources,” he says.