Team Bored Tunnelers has become the first-ever Bangladeshi, and in fact, the first South Asian team, to qualify for the finals in Elon Musk's Not-A-Boring Competition. Who are the individuals behind making this happen? The team sat down for a conversation with The Business Standard.
Team Bored Tunnelers consists of six board members: Shaekh Mohammad Shithil, Shahriar Iqbal Mahim, Imran Khan, Fahin Uddin Enam, Sibly Noman, and the youngest member, Talha Zubair. It's a cross-institutional team comprising members from UTM (University Technology Malaysia), BUET, BRAC University, RUET, and Notre Dame College.
Shithil led the team from the front, while Mahim played the co-lead role.
The journey started from scratch in March this year. Shithil and Talha decided to give it a shot when they found the online registration for the competition live on its official website.
"Talha is very enthusiastic and keeps his eyes open for events and competitions happening around the world. One day he shared this with me, and being a mechanical engineering graduate, it caught my attention and interest," recalled Shithil, who graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and is currently a lecturer at a private university in Dhaka.
"The Preliminary Design Submission round was quite challenging for us. We started from scratch, and within a period of just one and a half months, we had to come up with the design," said Talha.
"Robotics, Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, and Computer Engineering knowledge combinedly work for designing a tunnel boring machine. We are blessed that our team is interdisciplinary, with members coming from different backgrounds, so we could complement each other well," Shithil added.
The Not-A-Boring Competition first took place in 2021 and is hosted every year by Elon Musk's The Boring Company. It challenges participating teams to drill a 30m long and 50cm wide tunnel.
Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) design is not open source, and that's where the scope of innovation lies. The call is to design a Tunnel Boring Machine that can most effectively perform its task.
"One thing to be noted is that mega-projects like our Karnaphuli tunnel require a mega tunnel boring machine, which usually has a diameter of above 500 meters. But here we are challenged to design a micro tunnel boring machine with a diameter of just 0.5 meters," mentioned Shahriar Iqbal Mahim.
Elon Musk founded The Boring Company as a subsidiary of SpaceX in 2017 but made it a separate corporation the following year.
Why is it called 'boring'?
Well, boring is not what comes to mind first for those who are not familiar with the term. In tunnel engineering, the term 'boring' simply means digging a tube-like passage through the earth.
Elon Musk's goal is to build the tunnel infrastructure necessary to enable fast, safe, and comfortable transportation, including loop and hyperloop. To feasibly build a large network of tunnels, one must first rapidly innovate to increase tunneling speed and reduce costs. Aligning with that vision, his company arranges the Not-A-Boring Competition.
The motto of the Not-A-Boring Competition reads, "Let's beat the snail." This is because the boring machine designed is supposed to exceed the speed of a garden snail, which travels at 3 meters per hour. This would be 10 times faster than the current market average of a tunnel boring machine.
"To be very honest, we didn't expect to reach this far. We are really excited for the finals. It feels amazing, you know, to compete with teams that you once followed and took inspiration from!" Talha shared with excitement in his voice.
Each year, the competition receives around 400 applications from around the world. It is quite competitive, as teams from top-class institutions like Technical University Münich (TUM), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Virginia Tech, etc., regularly participate.
Based on the preliminary design, around 10 teams are selected to compete in the finals. Technical University of Munich (TUM) holds an unbeaten record of winning all the editions of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod as well as Not-A-Boring competitions.
This year, the final will take place in Bastrop, Texas, over eight days. The tentative time is February-March 2024 and is subject to change. Teams will compete in three categories.
There will be an Innovation award for innovative design, build, test, and an accuracy award for the most accurate tunnel. The fastest team to complete the tunnel will be announced the ultimate winner.
However, funding has been a major challenge for the team. They have to implement their idea and test its feasibility locally, before doing so again in Texas. But it requires financial support for manufacturing costs.
And then there is also a heavy amount of shipment cost to ship the machine to the US. Teams require a substantial amount of manpower to test in the finals, thus incurring significant traveling costs for the team as well.
"In the Karnaphuli tunnel project, we bought a tunnel boring machine from China. But we can make our own machine and minimise the manufacturing cost in such mega-projects. We aim to initiate tunnel boring machine practices in Bangladesh for boring, digging, and repairing roads and highways," said Talha.
"After this competition ends this year, our team's journey only starts. We are a pioneer team in this field in Bangladesh, and as finalists, we aim to build a legacy," said Talha Zubair.
Their vision is to build this team as a research-based community of students dedicated to contributing to the future of mobility and transportation, investigating potential applications of TBMs and tunnel engineering systems.
"And we want to continue participating in the Not-a-Boring Competition in the upcoming years and collaborate with The Boring Company," shared Shithil.