U of T races to first place with a carbon-fibre shelled toboggan

Success at largest Canadian undergraduate engineering competition

U of T races to first place with a carbon-fibre shelled toboggan

University of Toronto engineering students glided to first place in the annual Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race (GNCTR) on February 1 with their sleek carbon fibre-shelled toboggan. The win was a first for the U of T group, who stole the show this year while wearing outfits inspired by the uniforms of Canada Post workers.

What’s the race, anyway?

The GNCTR, this year hosted for the first time in Toronto, dates back to 1974, when the unique event was founded in Alberta. Today, it is the largest undergraduate engineering competition in Canada.

This year’s race, which followed the opening ceremonies and a technology exhibition earlier in the week, was held at Snow Valley Ski Resort just outside of Toronto. Teams from 21 faculties across Canada raced hand-constructed, independently engineered toboggans down the largest snow tubing hill in eastern Canada.

Engineering teams received awards in a number of categories, including superstructure design, safety, and innovation. Perhaps unexpectedly, artistic design was factored in — the U of T toboggan was plastered with a mock Canada Post logo reading “send it,” and the team members were outfitted as mail carriers. U of T’s team was determined to be the overall champion through a comprehensive scoring rubric with 10 categories.

What are the rules?

The rules for the competition are simple at first glance — teams must build a toboggan that is fitted with concrete skis, weighs less than 300 pounds, and has functional steering and braking. Next, the toboggan must be able to safely transport five riders in an enclosed roll cage, a protective structure around the occupant seats. Finally, they send said toboggan barreling down a large ski-hill at the highest speed possible, hopefully keeping all riders inside.

While the final push down the hill could be missed in the blink of an eye, the lead-up to this moment takes months of hard work. The engineering process for this year’s toboggan began in the fall, with concept art, material experimentation, braking, and steering systems already well into production by October.

Innovative assets by U of T

Michael Lizzi, co-captain of the U of T team and an engineering science undergraduate student, explained some of the new and innovative assets included in this year’s toboggan in an interview with The Varsity. Starting with its distinguished design and safety features, he noted that “being a closed pod is definitely unique.”

“Something new this year is we have rider isolation built in, which is that the whole front nose cone past the windshield area is an isolated crumple zone.”

It is easy to see why safety is a big priority for the team. Accidents and rollovers are common, and medics wait attentively on the sidelines of the hill in case of emergency.

The venue on race day

Despite the potential dangers, the venue on race day was electric — loud music could be heard from the parking lot, competitors strutted in colourful coveralls, and impromptu dance routines broke out every few minutes in the crowd. A surreal moment that captured the eccentric fun of the event was the surprise appearance of an engineering student marching band, complete with drummers and trumpets.

While the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) team did not place, they seemed to have won the hearts of competitors and spectators by filling the role of impromptu rescuers — a loud chanting of “RMC!” could be heard every time the camouflage-clad team rushed onto the hill to carry off one of the many crashed toboggans.

Determination in absurdity

U of T’s engineering team participated in the fun and friendly antics, but in true U of T fashion, they also took their work very seriously. While many competitors were warming by the fire, sipping hot chocolate, or joining the spontaneous marching bands, most U of T team members could still be seen tinkering with their meticulously built carbon fibre-based toboggan, making sure everything was perfect for the race. In the end, the relentless U of T enthusiasm paid off, earning them recognition and top place.

This sense of determination to pursue excellence, even in the face of absurdity, seems to define the spirit of the GNCTR. As the sounds of trumpets faded away and engineering students boarded their buses to depart for closing ceremonies, one thing seemed clear — perhaps only an engineer could think of an idea like a concrete toboggan race, and only engineering students could be daring enough to pull it off.

How astronomers observe the distant reaches of the universe

2019 Fleming Medal recipient Dan Falk leads panel discussion on dark matter, exoplanets, extraterrestrial life

How astronomers observe the distant reaches of the universe

How do astronomers study celestial objects millions of miles away? The Astronomy and Space Exploration Society explored this question during a panel hosted on November 27 looking at the current observational methods of astronomy.

Audience members of all ages filed into Cody Hall that evening as a panel of four graduate students faced them, eager to share their knowledge. Award-winning science journalist Dan Falk moderated the event and guided the discussion as the night progressed.

The four panellists each come from diverse areas of research. Taylor Kutra, a second-year graduate student, studies the processes and environments in which planet formation occurs. Alysa Obertas, a fifth-year graduate student, studies the orbital dynamics of compact solar systems.

Third-year graduate student Emily Deibert focuses on ground-based observational methods of studying exoplanet atmospheres. Finally, Colleen Gilhuly, a fourth-year graduate student, studies spiral galaxies and their formation with Dragonfly, a telescope array, which is being operated on in New Mexico by researchers from U of T and Yale University.

Exoplanets: what do we know and how?

Falk began the discussion by asking what astronomers currently know about exoplanets and what still remains a mystery. 

Deibert acknowledged the bias in current exoplanet discovery methods, claiming that most discovered exoplanets are ‘Hot Jupiters’ ⁠— massive Jupiter-sized planets that orbit relatively close to their host stars. This does not occur as a result of them being the most common, but rather because they are the easiest type of exoplanet to detect. 

Instead, Kutra estimates that the most common exoplanets are ‘Super Earths’ — planets between the size of Earth and Neptune.

However, Kutra explained that exoplanet formation is still a mystery due to the problem of dust coagulation. She explained that it’s difficult for dust to coagulate due to the metre barrier problem, which is when a metre-sized proto-planet faces a headwind, slowing the coagulated rocky matter, causing it to fall into the star. 

Similarly, Falk raised another mystery: how is it possible to study planets that are not in our solar system at all? The panel remarked that this involves techniques like looking at the spectrum of exoplanets in order to determine what types of gases and features are present. In fact, Deibert observes the “fingerprints” of molecules that can only be resolved by large ground-based telescopes with high resolutions. 

Kutra also noted that we do not have the most common types of exoplanets in our solar system, which exacerbates the difficulty of understanding them.

Among such difficulties, it has become an interdisciplinary objective for both planetary and exoplanetary scientists to unravel the mysteries of planet formation.

Dark matter and extraterrestrial life

As the discussion turned to dark matter, Gilhuly described the U of T-led Dragonfly telephoto array, which aims to find the true nature of dark matter and its upshot for galaxy formation.

Large telescopes usually cannot sustain lenses because they tend to deform under their own weight. However, Dragonfly has sustained a massive lens with nano-structured coating that changes the material’s refractive index and reduces light scatter. This is favourable to observe bodies that are large and faint, like ultra-diffuse galaxies. 

After the guided portion of the discussion, Falk opened up the floor to questions. Immediately, a young boy shot his hand up and asked, “Are black holes dark matter?” inciting laughter amongst the audience. Surprisingly, the answer was somewhat complicated, as black holes are in some ways dark matter, but may only account for 10 per cent of the dark matter in the Milky Way. Thus, there must be something else accounting for the other 90 per cent.

Several other questions centred on the topic of extraterrestrial life, particularly whether exoplanets could possibly support life. Kutra acknowledged that hospitable atmospheres are essential for complicated molecules to form — it is a necessary but insufficient condition. Obertas further elaborated that there is an evolutionary element to extraterrestrial life.

It may be that the evolution of life follows a completely different course, with different foundational elements. Furthermore, we may not even be able to recognize extraterrestrial life because of how different their make-up is to our own.

Disclosure: Haya Sardar is the Secretary of the Astronomy and Space Exploration Society and Emily Deibert has previously written with The Varsity.

U of T engineering students aim to revolutionize transportation with hyperloop technology

Investigating a mode of transportation that could exceed the speed of commercial airliners

U of T engineering students aim to  revolutionize transportation with hyperloop technology

Since the early 1900s, the world has embraced the age of flight. Planes with guzzling engines leapfrogged across cities and oceans, consequently subduing slower modes of transportation such as ships and trains. However, just as the passenger ship once faced the threat of the commercial airliner, planes may soon face an emerging threat: the hyperloop.

In 2012, SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk with the goal of revolutionizing space technology, introduced the concept of the hyperloop. Described as a pod sealed within a tube which has no air resistance, the hyperloop could theoretically travel at speeds of up to 1,200 kilometres per hour. In comparison, the fastest train in the world can only travel up to 430 kilometres per hour.

Over the past several years, Musk has held annual competitions between various universities and engineering teams in the design of hyperloop technology in order to foster innovation.

The Varsity sat down with the University of Toronto Hyperloop Team (UTHT) to discuss hyperloop tech and the team’s role in its design. 

The origins of the UTHT

Inspired by a YouTube video of Elon Musk’s annual hyperloop competition, Juan Egas, a third-year undergraduate student studying materials science, wanted to join a hyperloop team.

However, he soon discovered that no such teams existed at U of T. Rather than staying content with watching teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo compete, he decided to co-found a team at U of T. 

With Egas as captain, the team launched operations during the winter semester of 2019. Its growth was as fast as an accelerating hyperloop pod. 

“By the end of the semester… we were about 10 [people]. At the end of the summer, we were 100… and now we’re [over] 200,” Egas remarked. The team also raised over $50,000 in funds in less than six months through corporate sponsorships and funding from U of T.

The team has divided itself into several main divisions, including technology, leadership, and business. Within the tech division, students designed test tracks for the pod, implemented critical software, produced braking systems, and engineered propulsion systems. Students also worked in the subsystems of structures to produce the shell and frame of the vehicle and power systems, which involves battery design.

In addition to designing the first pod, the team set up a research and development division to outmaneuver competitors by configuring technology such as Halbach arrays — arrangements of permanent magnets — into the design. The Lorentz force generated allows the pod to levitate, and as long the magnetic drag is surpassed, the pod can accelerate. 

Yet the team is not solely focused on competing with other universities; rather it also hopes to achieve more altruistic ideals. 

“We are not defined by competition,” Egas explained. “At the very beginning, it was about the competition, but then we started to realize that [the] hyperloop is more than [just] a cool technology [and is also aiming for future] sustainability.”

Jovan Phull, a founding member, said to The Varsity that hyperloop construction could bring better transportation options to North America, which lacks the high speed trains deployed in Europe and Asia.

Another founding member, Tony Wang, added that “it would be an honour to strive… to accomplish this evolutionary design.”

Taking on challenges in hyperloop construction

Aflush with growth, the team found itself facing many of the challenges that Musk currently faces. 

“The learning curve of the design is steep, requiring a lot of self-motivation in learning new things that the university does not teach you,” Wang commented. 

“Being a new team, we didn’t have previous years to look to. So we [looked] a lot to European teams and [to] teams around the world,” said Sasha Rudolf, who serves as the technology division director.

Similarly, developers of hyperloop tech often find themselves stymied by a lack of precedent. Another added difficulty is that the hyperloop pods must be able to withstand normal atmospheric pressure, as the hyperloop operates in a near-vacuum.

The future of UTHT

To test their pods, UTHT is developing a test track in collaboration with other universities. The team is fully cognizant of not only its own future prospects, but also that of the hyperloop. “[The hyperloop] could have a really big impact on [communities such as] Toronto and Montréal,” Rudolf remarked. However, he also acknowledged that “one of the big challenges is going to be getting the whole community, and especially the government, involved.”

Rather than leaving it solely up to Musk and other tech titans to get the job done, they hope to help foster some innovation within Canada.

The team has been planning a Canadian hyperloop team competition in conjunction with five other Canadian universities this summer. This would showcase various projects, new research, and of course, the contest itself.

Editor’s Note (January 19, 10:14 pm): The article has been updated to clarify that UTHT is developing a test track in collaboration with other Canadian universities, which is not currently operational.

UTSG: Sustainability: Beyond the Trend Conference 2020 by Sustainable Engineers Association

Sustainable Engineers Association (SEA) brings back their annual sustainability conference with this year’s theme: Sustainability: Beyond the Trend. The event is hosted by SEA UofT and SEA Ryerson and will be taking place Saturday, January 18, 2020 at Myhal Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

UTSG: Paddling Down Memory Lane – U of T Concrete Canoe Event

Calling out to all University of Toronto Concrete Canoe friends!

Are you a past/current canoe member? Are you interested in supporting the UofT Concrete Canoe community? This event is for YOU!

With this Mix & Mingle event, we’d like to bring together the canoe community from across generations and trace through the stories of UofT Concrete Canoe with its over 30 years of history.

UTSG: DIY Concrete Ornaments — U of T Concrete Canoe

What’s more special than a DIY Concrete Ornament?

Come make your own and help Concrete Canoe with this seasonal special fundraiser! A variety of moulds will be available or you can get creative and design something completely novel!

You will make your ornament on November 30 and pick up the week after (concrete needs to cure!). Upon pick up, $2 is required to support Concrete Canoe 🙂

If you can’t make it to this DIY session, we would also be selling ornaments everyday 12-2pm in Bahen atrium all week of December 9.

The unexplained side of autonomous vehicles

How self-driving cars could impact human health

The unexplained side of autonomous vehicles

As automated vehicle (AV) technology advances and becomes more mainstream, further research should be conducted to understand how self-driving vehicles will impact population health and well-being.

The focus of much of the research and discussion surrounding AVs lies predominantly in their impact on road safety. However, they can transform our way of living in many other areas. Social equity, the natural environment, and our constructed environment will impact whether AV technology has beneficial or adverse effects on our health.

In a recent University of Toronto-affiliated paper, researchers explored these themes and others in order to examine the potential impacts of AVs on health outcomes and lifestyles.

What are automated vehicles?

An automated car’s ability to function independently of human input is reliant on software that collects information from sensors and video cameras on the car. These devices help the software understand the position of the vehicle and its surroundings, especially its position in relation to other vehicles, pedestrians, traffic lights, and road signs.

The software then uses this information to process sensory input in order to send instructions to the car’s actuators, which are devices in charge of the car’s acceleration, braking, and steering.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of driving automation, ranging from level 0, fully manual; to level 5, fully automated. The levels are based on whether the human or the automated system is mostly responsible for monitoring the driving environment.

It is interesting to note that the SAE differentiates between the terms “automated” and “autonomous,” and does not use “autonomous.” The term autonomy has implications of self awareness beyond the electro-mechanical.

A completely autonomous car would be able to make its own choices based on its own awareness, which is not the same as automated driving.

A self-driving car like a Tesla would be categorized under level 3, conditional automation. Its autopilot feature allows for the vehicle to have environmental detection capabilities, steer, accelerate, and brake, but human supervision is still required to operate the vehicle.

This is an exciting time as AV technology is rapidly evolving. However, the health impacts of AVs should also be highlighted.

How are AVs changing human health?

The co-authors of the study assessed the literature in order to investigate the implications that AVs could have on human health.

Several of the key themes explored were road safety, the natural environment, lifestyle, social equity, and the urban environment.

It should be no surprise that most of the existing literature is concentrated on road safety; the implementation of fully automated vehicles could revolutionize mobility and transportation as we know it.

For example, AVs have the potential to play a key role in collision avoidance. As human error is the most common reason for vehicle collisions, higher levels of AV technology could mitigate this risk factor.

However, while AVs could reduce the stress of operating a vehicle and increase the enjoyment of travel, an over-reliance on AVs could also result in an increase in sedentary behaviour.

For example, humans might switch to using AVs for trips that normally involve active forms of travel, like walking or bicycling, or rely on AVs for longer trips instead of rail or air travel.

The impact of AVs on the climate crisis

As AV technology becomes more prevalent, so does its role in the climate crisis. The literature concerning fuel efficiency or emissions and AVs was found to be divided on whether the implications of AVs are more beneficial or harmful to the natural environment.

Some academics argue that AVs could allow for a “less carbon-intensive transportation system if the majority of AVs are electrically powered.” Others argue that AVs will only perpetuate the existing dependency on cars, which will require more road infrastructure, and have more detrimental impacts on the environment and our respiratory and cardiovascular health.

The study emphasizes that the environmental impacts would have to be determined by the model of AV ownership and access, and the type of fuel source.

The impact of AVs on social inequality

Social equity was also found to be another theme commonly explored in literature, as the advent of self-driving cars is predicted to “improve accessibility for differently-abled populations” and “improve social connectivity. ”

However, this would depend on whether the AVs have a shared or personal ownership model. If private ownership is the predominant model, high income populations would benefit more while lower income populations could “face decreased access to transportation,” or other barriers that come with reliance on public transportation.

Opposingly, a shared model of AVs would provide many benefits for human health in regards to reclaiming public spaces and opening up more green space for human activity. For example, the “traffic efficiency of AVs could free up space in the right-of-way to allow for cycling infrastructure and allow for wider sidewalks.”

Furthermore, a shared model of AVs would allow for reclaiming parking lots as part of the public realm and present opportunities for affordable housing or urban green spaces.

Policies, AVs, and health outcomes

While AVs are anticipated to improve human health outcomes, the measures that can be implemented to protect humans are also crucial.

In an email to The Varsity, a Toronto Public Health spokesperson emphasized that as AV technology becomes more prevalent, the evidence related to AVs and population health expands, it is important that health impacts are monitored to identify trends.

When asked whether regulations of this industry could help balance the positive and negative outcomes of AVs, and whether regulations would be a sufficient measure on their own, the spokesperson wrote, “Processes to develop regulations and policies that govern AV introduction and use should consider all potential health and equity impacts. This will support identification and mitigation of potential negative impacts.”

The Toronto Public Health spokesperson added that consumer education may be helpful, such as by informing consumers of the benefits of choosing an electric vehicle versus one that uses fossil fuel emissions.

This information “would be most effective as a supplement to evidence-informed, health-protective regulations and policies,” according to the spokesperson.

A brake from school

In conversation with engineering graduate Nikola Kostic on aircraft brake shortlisted for the James Dyson Award

A brake from school

The design of an innovative aircraft brake by Nikola Kostic, a recent mechanical engineering alum from the University of Toronto, has been selected as one of the top 20 finalists for the James Dyson Award (JDA).

The prestigious annual international engineering design award has been promoted in engineering design courses at U of T. It rewards a cash prize of $50,000, and the finalists’ designs are reviewed by the renowned innovator James Dyson himself.

The Aeroflux contactless brake, Kostic’s design, previously won first place at Hatchery’s demo day where its team of Nikola Kostic, together with Stevan Kostic and Roshan Varghese, received initial funding to develop their idea as a result.

How Aeroflux works

Aeroflux stops a moving object without using moving parts that may wear out.

“If you think about it, you are stopping a multi-ton aircraft without touching it. That’s really what I find fascinating about it, and what other people find interesting as well,” Kostic explained in an interview with The Varsity.

Replacing conventional brakes is a time-consuming and expensive process. Kostic’s design, however, eliminates the need for frequent brake replacements and is therefore a more sustainable solution for short-haul aircrafts. This could potentially save millions of dollars in operating costs.

The technical term for the concept used by Aeroflux is called “eddy current braking.”

It avoids wearing out mechanical parts by applying a magnetic field, which induces electric currents in the surface of a highly conductive rotor. The eddy currents then produce their own magnetic field, which opposes the stationary magnetic field that created them. This creates a braking torque on the rotor.

Kostic’s design stood out among the JDA candidates since it is an excellent example of how engineering can make an industry more sustainable, and shows commitment toward achieving the ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emissions in aviation.

“I think that now we are really just starting to see the very beginning of these solutions, which are a complete blend of engineering [and] economics, but also sustainability,” said Kostic.

Origins of Kostic’s Aeroflux design

Kostic’s idea first came to mind in his final-year engineering capstone project and was inspired by his life-long interest in aviation. During his childhood, Kostic wanted to be a pilot. His interest later shifted into aerospace engineering when he joined the mechanical engineering program at U of T.

After five years of undergraduate studies, including a Professional Experience Year, Kostic graduated last May with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering.

After graduation, Kostic decided it was the right time to jump into entrepreneurship.

“When you’re younger you can tolerate a much higher risk profile,” said Kostic. “Later in life you might have a lot more responsibilities and obligations, so I think students are kind of the ideal entrepreneurs if you choose to go that way.”

Kostic was supported by the U of T Entrepreneurship Hatchery, which granted him access to prototype funding, mentorship, and the opportunity to work with other talented students to form a strong team.

“There’s a whole network dedicated to trying to help students to create jobs for themselves,” said Kostic. “I was very lucky to have that as part of my undergraduate education and I’m very grateful for it.”

Next steps for Aeroflux

When asked about what is in store for Aeroflux, Kostic said that he plans to build a full-scale demonstrator and hopes to one day see his design on a real plane.

Kostic gave some parting advice for fellow students doing design projects.

“The [project] is what you make of it. Number one [priority] is to pick a [project] that you are passionate about, something you can really see yourself diving into. More importantly, something you can see the application for, something where you can clearly translate an academic project to a real-world solution.”