Toby Savage ’18 exemplifies the values Ranney hopes to instill in its students, especially authentic leadership and resilience. He shares how his time at Ranney prepared him to lead his team in an international computer science and engineering competition designed by Elon Musk.
What attracted you to the computer science field?
I was involved with the Robotics team at Ranney, but what really solidified my passion and interest in computer sciences was taking AP Comp Sci my junior year. The course was challenging at first as it encouraged a new way of “thinking” to solve problems. I was determined to study hard to do well on the AP exam (which I did and was proud of). Once I excelled, my dad encouraged me to pursue it as a major in college.
One of the factors about computer science that interests me is the diversity of projects I could work on and the potential impact my work could have. I’ll never be stuck in one industry. I’ve since tested this theory through my internship experiences and have worked on projects for companies in agriculture research, medical device implants, and web development.
How was your transition from Ranney to college?
Ranney helped me build confidence in knowing what I can achieve. When I got to college, I wasn’t afraid of the challenge. The rigor of Ranney classes also prepared me for the large, state-school environment because I understood that it was up to me—no one else—to do well. I made sure I sat in the front row, got to know my professors, and attended office hours.
My early computer science classes were very similar to the classes I had taken at Ranney. Since I was already proficient enough in the subject, I was able to make more complicated programs for my assignments, putting myself ahead of my classmates.
Tell us about the Not-a-Boring Competition
I joined the club CU Hyperloop during my sophomore year at Boulder after attending a club involvement fair. The team had previously worked on the Hyperloop Pod Competitions hosted by SpaceX, with the goal to produce a subscale prototype vehicle to demonstrate various aspects of the hyperloop concept.
By junior year, I was named the lead of CU Hyperloop’s software team, but I had two big hurdles. First, my software team was small, consisting of two members, so I knew I had to work to cultivate new members in order to take on that year’s project. Second, the competition would be completely different from the previous years, leaving my team to face a large learning curve. The Not-a-Boring Competition hosted by The Boring Company, a tunnel-boring company also owned by Elon Musk, would challenge teams around the world to design, build, and race a tunneling solution to bore a 30-meter tunnel with a cross-sectional area of .2 square meters while reaching a depth of 1.5 meters. In order to compete, teams must submit an application. The first round was called the Preliminary Design Briefing (PDB) presentation and, if accepted, moved on to the technical design reviews, called the Final Design Package (FDP) round.
Historically, CU Hyperloop would make it through the PDB round, but not through FDP, but my goal was to change that. In September of 2020, the software team had just two members: myself and an aerospace major. Collaborating with the mechanical and electrical subteams, we had to brainstorm and design many technical components: what would the overall structure of our machine look like, how does it support itself, how to support the tunnel behind the machine once it's underway, how would we power it, how do we control it, etc. In addition, my team specifically had to design all the software aspects of the project. This included producing an application to display data, ethernet communications between a base station computer and the tunnel boring machine, software to control the actuators on the machine, and an algorithm to keep track of the machine’s underground position (GPS does not work underground) based on telemetry sensor data monitoring kinematic movements. I swear the final design package we put together, which was roughly 100 pages long, was one of the most beautiful documents I’ve ever created.
In February of 2021, we learned that out of 400 applicants, we were one of 12 teams in the world to pass the FDP round and were invited to compete in the first-ever Not-a-Boring Competition. By this time, our software team had grown to five members and our production escalated. I truly assumed the role of Software Lead and learned how to guide people effectively while producing our solutions. I had a diverse team in terms of skills, so I was able to assign projects and components based on their strengths, while also overseeing the entire project and helping my team members. The news of the competition attracted local media attention which added to the excitement. We were featured by The Daily Camera News, ABC’s Denver7 News, and CU Boulder Today.
CU Hyperloop was one of eight teams to attend the week-long competition, which took place in Las Vegas last September. While 12 teams were invited, a few couldn’t participate due to a lack of funding. Unfortunately, our team was unable to fully produce our tunnel boring machine also due to a lack of funding (our joke was the European teams had to spend more money to ship their completed project than we had to create ours). However, we still attended the competition to demonstrate our completed systems: the tunnel support systems and software implementations.
While it was a little disappointing at first not to compete with a fully functional tunnel boring machine, it was great to see other teams’ projects and network with students and engineers from around the world. By the end of the competition week, we received positive and constructive feedback from the judges (who were SpaceX, Tesla, and TBC engineers) “for next year’s competition,” which made us all proud of our work. This year, the team is continuing to improve our solution in preparation for next year’s competition. The exposure from the competition has also helped the club grow to over 50 members, 10+ of which joined the software team. This larger team will be a lot more to manage, but I’m up for the challenge!
Toby Savage 18’ is studying computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is the Software Team Lead for CU Hyperloop. Savage is expected to graduate in the spring of 2022.