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Keeping in the Hyperloop: Building a Faster Future

Keeping in the Hyperloop: Building a Faster Future

Elon Musk's ambitious concept for a new mode of transportation has been picking up speed. Meet some of the students and engineers working to make the Hyperloop a reality.

An artists' rendering of a passenger concept for the Hyperloop. (Image source: Camilo Sanchez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The next great mode of transportation might not be invented by a large corporation, it could be a team of students, or even a group of strangers on the Internet.

In 2012, when Elon Musk proposed creating a “fifth mode of transportation,” (the other four being cars, planes, trains, and boats), many dismissed it as a passing fancy at worst and a futurist pipe dream at best. Musk, best known in his roles as the CEO of electric auto company, Tesla, and SpaceX, the independent spacecraft company, has a penchant for announcing projects that sound more like the visions of an Isaac Asimov novel than practical. His many dream projects include colonizing mars, creating a system of underground tunnels for automobile traffic, and, most recently, creating a neurological link between humans and machines.

Musk called his idea for a new transportation system the Hyperloop. It would travel twice the speed of a plane (able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes), be immune to changes in weather, never have collisions, have low power consumption, and enough energy storage to operate for 24 hours a day. Musk envisions it as the ideal mode of transportation between cities 900 miles or less apart.

Engineers at Tesla and SpaceX got on it and in 2013 Musk released a 57-page white paper detailing an early design concept.

“When the California 'high-speed' rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” Musk wrote in the paper. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

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The basic concept of the Hyperloop is to send pods, containing passengers and/or cargo, through a tube. The tube would contain fans that create partial vaccuum inside to reduece wind resistance. By propelling the pods through a partial vacuum, using either air pressure, wheels, or some sort of electromagnetic system (similar to a bullet train's maglev system) theorists believe the Hyperloop could obtain supersonic speeds one day.

It all sounded like a nice thought experiment. Then Musk did something unexpected. In 2013 He announced that the Hyperloop would be open source and invited anyone who dared to try to come up with new iterations on the design to improve it and make the Hyperloop a reality.

Companies sprang up almost overnight – all aiming to make their version of the Hyperloop into a working, scalable system. Early this year Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One, arguably the most well-known of these companies, broke ground on DevLoop, a 1640-foot-long test track in the Nevada desert that it says will be the world’s only full-system and full-scale Hyperloop test site. The company is planning to launch full-scale tests of DevLoop sometime in 2017. Hyperloop One has also been meeting with U.S. Policymakers and transportation experts to discuss plans of Hyperloop routes throughout the United States.

There are now at least half a dozen companies vying to beat Musk to market with his own idea. In 2015 SpaceX announced it was building its own 1-mile-long Hyperloop test track at its facilities in Hawthorne, Calif. It also announced its Hyperloop Pod Competition – open to any participants around the world that wanted to take a crack at inventing the ideal Hyperloop pod.  Out of 700 teams that submitted preliminary applications, 27 teams, many from prestigious schools such as MIT, NYU, and Technical University of Munich were eventually invited to physically test their designs in the competition held at SpaceX, the first half of which completed in January 2017. 

In the end, if companies are shipping goods or transporting passengers through high-speed tubes one day, they may owe the innovation to students, not a large corporation.

The Team that Reddit Built

Of all the 27 teams there was only one non-student team, and only one team not sponsored by a university- Team rLoop – a group of engineers, designers, and DIY enthusiasts all brought together through the power of social media.

Spend a few minutes on Reddit and you'll quickly realize there's a subreddit for almost any topic (from cats to string theory). For rLoop it all began on the SpaceX subreddit. “Someone posted [on Reddit] and suggested that the Reddit community might be able to put forth a competitive design,” Brent Lessard, rLoop’s Project Manager, told Design News. The community took the idea seriously and very quickly there were hundreds of people volunteering time, expertise, and even money toward the goal."

rLoop's Hyperloop pod in progress. The team is made entirely of members who met online via Reddit. (Image source: rLoop).

“What we did was break down the aspects of the pod into essentially subsystem or sub teams then started to organize people in terms of experience and interest," Lessard said. Team rLoop did all of this initially without even a central physical location. Team members worked on a strictly volunteer basis and communicated using software like Skype and Slack for meeting and project status updates.

Lessard said having a remote team had its pros and cons. “We tried to focus on the strengths of the remote team and mitigate any potential issues,” he said. “Having people in different time zones turned out to be a benefit because work could essentially be done around the clock. I would pass [a project] off to the lead engineer in San Francisco, he would work on it and pass it off to someone en Australia, then India, then the UK, and by the time I woke up again it would have progressed.”

rLoop was one of the few teams to tackle creating a Hyperloop pod that could handle both human passengers as well as non-pressure-sensitive cargo. “We went with an active magnetic levitation system that would allow us to turn the hover engines on. It would allow us to levitate in place but we could also manipulate the engines so we could get thrust, braking, and flight control.”

rloop's work eventually attracted the attention of sensor and connectors company TE Connectivity, which offered to sponsor the team as well as provide technical expertise and a physical test facility on its Menlo Park, Calif. campus. “TE came along at a very integral point for us,” Lessard said. “The rLoop team lent itself very well as a remote and online team to the design aspect, but once we passed all those milestones and got the greenlight from SpaceX to proceed with the competitions we had to shift to a manufacturing focus, which brought about many of its own challenges.” He said that TE supplied most of the sensors, cabling, connectors, and electrical equipment that would eventually make up rLoop's pod.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

While Reddit was buzzing with Hyperloop ambitions, a team of students at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering were working on their own unique design. For the NYU Hyperloop team, simplicity is the key to making the Hyperloop into something workable and scalable.

“Our pod is one of the more simple ones,” Matt Cocca, a computer engineering student and captain of NYU's Hyperloop team, told Design News. “We were heavily focused on designs that are fail-proof, either mechanically or electrically. Our braking system, for example, can stop when power is being lost or is lost.”

The team from NYU's Tandon School of Engineering created a Hyperloop pod optimized for freight transport and opted for a wheel-based system rather than air pressure or magnetic levitation. (Image source: NYU Tandon School of Engineering)

Rather than using magnetic levitation or pressurized air, the NYU's teams pod uses a wheel-based system to propel itself. And the team chose to focus on creating a pod capable of transporting freight and not passengers. The team reasoned that from a realistic standpoint freight transport would be the first frontier of the Hyperloop. Many have speculated it may be a while before the public gets comfortable with being shot through a tube at high-speeds on their next business trip.

“Passengers add complications” Cocca said, “You have to keep the cabin pressurized, and there are acceleration and deceleration concerns. When dealing with freight we don't have to worry about those very precise comfort levels.”

Putting the 'Hype' in Hyperloop

Of course an idea as ambitious as Hyperloop hasn't been without its critics. When Elon Musk first proposed the idea there were a lot of questions around the cost and logistics. Musk initially promised a system traveling from LA to San Francisco would cost $6 billion, meaning it would cost a tenth of California's proposed high-speed rail system and be five times as fast.

And while the overall consensus is that the technology to create the Hyperloop is available, there are larger concerns around the safety and practicality of it. What happens if the pressurized tube is damaged or ruptured? How much power will the system need to consume? What happens if the pod gets stuck in the middle of nowhere? How do you deal with slight deviations or changes in direction in the tube?

In a 2013 interview with the The Mercury News, John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said of the concept: “The high-level concept doesn’t violate any fundamental laws of physics...[but] I’m not sure whether the details work.” In that same article Richard Muller, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, said the system could be affected by dirt and grime and even went as far as to speculate the Hyperloop could make an attractive target for terrorists.

There's also the even more likely hazard for California in particular – earthquakes. A 2015 article from Forbes called the Hyperloop a “catastrophe waiting to happen.” Writer Ethan Siegel, a physics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore, listed having earthquake-proof tubing as one of the most significant challenges for the Hyperloop, alongside passenger comfort. Seigel wrote: “The proposed accelerations for the Hyperloop are a factor of seven greater than the Shinkansen in Japan allow for concerning human passengers, as humans can only handle about 0.2g's (or about 2 m/s^2) of acceleration in the up-and-down or side-to-side directions... You might enjoy riding a roller coaster for one or two minutes at a time, but it would take a superhuman to enjoy (or even tolerate) a trip like this for an entire half-hour...”

In May 2016, in a piece for The Guardian, writer Alex Hern was less than impressed by a test by Hyperloop One, noting that the linear actuator system the company was using to propel its magnetically levitated pods at the time was nothing new and has been used in roller coasters for decades: “Hyperloop One has reached the technological heights of a 1996-era rollercoaster when it comes to its propulsion systems, but does nothing to calm very real doubts that the company will be able to deliver what it promises, when it promises, for the price it promises,” Hern wrote.

Easier Said Than Done 

rLoop's Lessard said his team encountered many of these technical challenges when designing their pod. “We needed to be conscious of deviations in the tube like banking, turns, and elevation changes,” he said. “If you're moving at potentially the speed of sound, and you have a passenger inside, you have to make accommodations for the g-forces they may experience.”

Lessard said that for the most part engineers should try to keep the tube system as straight as possible and decelerate the pod as it approaches turns. This means on average the Hyperloop would have an average speed of 530 mph compared to its currently-proposed top speed of about 700 mph.

Placing electronics in a partial-vacuum also presents design challenges. “The pressure vessel [pod] contains a lot of the battery and electronics that wouldn't be safe in a vacuum,” Lessard said. “As a result there's a lot of external hardware and there's a lot of wiring going between the pressure vessel and external system. Those penetrations in the pressure vessel are obvious sources of leaks and are quite difficult to control.”

Team rLoop's Hyperloop pod at the SpaceX competition weekend in January 2017. (Image source: rLoop)

Once its concept was in place, team rLoop shifted a lot of its focus to safety. “In order to track the pod's place in the tube, for instance, we had accelerators and tracking sensors to tell where the pod is inside the tube. We also had a laser range finger at the end of the pod to tell us the distance to the end of the tube.” Such systems would be crucial to controlling pod speeds throughtout the tube and to tracking down pods in the event of a system failure.

Team rLoop also found that the active magnetic levitation system for the pod was quite power hungry. “There was nothing commercially available in terms of batteries to supply the power we needed so we spent about three months designing, testing, and building our own battery packs,” Lessard said. For the purposes of the competition the team had to create an independent charging system that was customed designed for the pod by a Bulgarian company called IPS. “Even the battery management software was written by us, specific to our battery packs,” Lessard said.

Musk himself has proposed using solar energy to power the Hyperloop system, but it remains to be seen if solar can provide the necessary energy output. “The tube has a lot of real estate on the top. Ideally you would see that lined with solar panels and feed power to recharge batteries or power other peripherals,” Lessard suggested.

“The hardest part is making everything work together dynamically – making everything fit into the pod and integrating the electrical and mechanical systems together,” Kyle Casey, a mechanical engineering student and member of NYU Tandon's Hyperloop team told Design News. Casey said that much of his team's initial design changed because of challenges. “For example, we're using brakes that camp around the flange, so the pod can't move vertically and can't hit the I beam on the track.”

“We've gone through a couple of iterations where we had pneumatic brakes, but we also thought about an electrical backup system and linear actuators as well,” the NYU team's Matt Cocca added.

The Competition

Members of rLoop and the NYU Tandon teams remember the SpaceX competition days as both an intense and exhilarating experience. “Sixty of us flew to LA, met in person for the first time, and saw the hardware for the first time,” rLoop's Lessard said. “We'd been working for 19 months, all online – chatting every day and doing video conference calls, but to meet everyone in person was awesome.”

“It was lot lighter of an atmosphere than I expected,” NYU Tandon's Casey said. “Yes, it was intimidating the first day or so. The other teams were there with their pods and busy working on their stuff. But as everyone got sort of settled in people were walking around asking everyone else questions. There was actually a lot of opportunity to talk to and collaborate with other teams."

“Being able to throw around ideas with other teams and compare how we were doing things opens your mind up to looking at new ideas,” Cocca agreed.

The first half of the SpaceX competition consisted of two phases: First was the design weekend, held in January 2016, in which the 27 teams had their designs critiqued by SpaceX judges. From there 23 teams were invited to the second phase- the test track runs held in January 2017. At the end of the test track runs Team rLoop walked away with one of five Pod Innovation awards given for its design. Other top awards went to Delft University (Highest Overall Score) , Technical University of Munich (for Fastest Pod); MIT (Safety and Reliability Award); and University of Maryland (Performance and Operations Award).

The second half of the competition is scheduled to take place in summer 2017. Unlike the first half, which used multiple judging criteria, SpaceX said the second half will only have on criteria – maximum speed with successful deceleration (meaning: which pod design can go the fastest without crashing?).

Coming to a Desert Near You

In the meantime members of NYU Tandon's team as well as the globally-spread members of Team rLoop are taking their experience in the first half competition and using it to improve their designs.

NYU Tandon's Hyperloop team at the SpaceX competition weekend. (Image source: NYU Tandon School of Engineering)

“We're really focused on refitting our initial design. We got a lot of feedback from SpaceX and they definitely appreciated the simple approach we took to the pod,” Casey said. “[SpaceX] agreed with the fact that it's scalable. We weren't able to do any testing in the competition because we didn't have our main wheels set up. But for weekend two we're planning a full dynamic test in a full-sized tube. Hopefully our pod will be able go up to 150 mph around the test track.”

Lessard said rLoop is more determined than ever to see its Hyperloop pod completed.” The team and community made this happen. We had over 1000 people sign up to be a part of this. We had a strong core of 200-400 people and had 17 or 18 countries represented just at the competitions weekend. It's awesome to see people come together who are passionate about a project and focused on making it a reality.”

While a great deal of work is being put toward the project, no group or company has set forth a planned date to have a fully functioning Hyperloop up and running for cargo or human transport. But with mounting pressure globally to relieve the wasted money and time, and stress of increasingly more congested travel and traffic, a new mode of transportation could be needed sooner than later.

“I'd like to see [the Hyperloop] become this new mode of transportation,” Casey said. “In the very near future everything's going to have to be much more economical and environmental, both for freight and passenger transport.”

“I hope that it comes,” Cocca said.

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.  

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