Motion of the Spheres: Constructing a Compact Mechatronic Orrery: Nationalist Effects on Magnetic Levitation Train Systems in China and South Korea

Sheppard, Samuel, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Forelle, MC, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Garner, Gavin, EN-Mech & Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

My STS thesis is about how nationalism impacts maglev train technology in China and South Korea. The results of this research concluded that some nations (China in my case) will oftentimes be overzealous in their pursuit of cutting-edge technology resulting in inefficient allocations of resources. On the other hand, nations that effectively use their resources to adopt appropriate forms of new technologies (South Korea in my case) can use nationalism to their advantage and enhance their projects. This conclusion can be generalized to all forms of engineering that are funded from higher powers. This segways well into my technical project which was a capstone funded by the University of Virginia Mechanical Engineering Department. Specifically, the goal of my capstone was to build an orrery using mechatronics rather than the traditional mechanisms. An orrery is a model of our solar system that accurate represents the relative motion of the planets (and sometimes moons) about the Sun. This orrery will be displayed in the hallways of the Mechanical Engineering Building on grounds for all current students, prospective students, and other visitors to see. These projects relate because both maglev train technology and this mechatronic orrery are cutting-edge technology projects funded by governing bodies to outwardly tout engineering prowess. The Chinese and South Korean governments are motivated by the nationalist drive for superiority, so they construct state of the art rail networks to prove their prestige. And the University of Virginia’s Mechanical Engineering program wants to impress onlookers with the innovative accomplishments of their students. This is achieved by showcasing a successful capstone project in the main hall of their marquee building on grounds.
To explain our orrery, an explanation of mechatronics is necessary. In short, mechatronics uses electronics, microcontrollers, and motors to replace antique mechanisms like gears, rotating shafts, and other geometrical forms of translating motion. This results in systems that are much easier and cheaper to update and manufacture. Our orrery only included the Sun, Earth, and Moon, but we made sure to accurately represent important aspects of these elements such as the tilt of the Earth, orientation of the Moon, and accurate representations of seasons as the Earth and Moon orbit the sun. Additionally, our orrery will allow users to input a desired date in the past or the future to and have the Earth and Moon snap to their historically accurate position on said date. This project is both educational and aesthetically pleasing while also serving as a great learning experience for my teammates and I.
My thesis dove into the nationalist backbone behind two modern but unique maglev train systems: the Incheon Maglev in South Korea and the Shanghai Transrapid Maglev in China. The Shanghai Transrapid Maglev is significantly more powerful technically as it is faster, carries more passengers, and traverses a longer distance. However, this difference results in significantly higher costs for research and development, construction, and maintenance. After using Sheila Jassanoff’s framework on nationalist sociotechnical imaginaries to analyze the situation, I determined that South Korea’s maglev was a much better use of national technology funding than China’s. China could have used a less expensive and more common form of high-speed transit like a bullet train to solve their transportation problem more effectively. On the other hand, South Korea made a wise and well-informed investment into novel maglev technology that appropriately served their city population. China was blinded by the desire for international attention and respect surrounding maglev technology, while South Korea made a more quaint but suitable maglev line that still garnered attention and respect from the worldwide mechanical engineering community.
To reflect, I am very pleased to have worked on both of these projects simultaneously. Although they sound completely disparate to the average observer, I found that they overlapped in many valuable ways. The most prominent lesson learned has to do with funding sources for engineering projects. Before this year I never really thought about where financing came from for engineering projects of all scales. Whether it be a small engineering capstone for six UVA students or a billion-dollar investment into a maglev train line, money always comes from somewhere for some reason. I found that the impetus for this funding is sometimes rooted in the desire to be viewed as better than your peers. UVA wants an exceptional example of mechanical engineering in their main hallways, and countries want to be recognized as elite contenders in the world of new technologies. Being knowledgeable of where financial support comes from and why it presents itself will be critical to making informed decisions throughout my upcoming career.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
maglev, magnetic levitation trains, mechatronics, orrery, sociotechnical imaginaries

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Gavin Garner
STS Advisor: MC Forelle
Technical Team Members: George Ardura, Bjorn Bergloff, Sarah Hemler, Samuel Montante, James Brad Pace

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