A three-part exploration into the technology that promises to revolutionise the world.
Part 1: Elon Musk and Beating Physics
Most stories on the Hyperloop start with Elon Musk and his ‘messianic’ 2012 proclamation: Let there be Hyperloop, he said, thereby kickstarting an open-source scramble to capitalise on the potential this mode of transportation offered. This one is a bit different. It’s a story of the pursuit of engineering excellence in Chennai, far from the bright lights of LA and the silicon sheen of SF, and how the first implementation of a futuristic technology might be in India.
Hyperloop may or may not be the bolt into the future that leaves technologists salivating, but one thing is for sure – smarter, better engineering is the way forward, and is what is desperately needed today.
What exactly is a Hyperloop*? It’s a fantastical vision for the future that Musk is only the latest spokesperson for – a gleaming metal tube, through which whooshes a capsule at supersonic speeds, carrying 30-40 passengers to cities hundreds of kilometres away in minutes. Hyperloop is not a breakout invention, but more a combination of existing technologies that inventors and tinkerers have been working on since the 19th century.
The fundamental transportation problem is how to go as fast as you can with the limitations that the earth, and physics places before you. Two factors in particular, are what the hyperloop focuses on eliminating – Air resistance and Friction.
To reduce the friction of an irregular terrain, inventions like the tram and the railroad came up, where the vehicle is set on a fixed track, greatly simplifying its path. To reduce the drag force due to air that opposes motion strongly at high speeds, we simply went where there was less air: at high altitudes where airplanes fly, low pressure allowing cruising with relatively lower fuel consumption. But neither of these solutions satisfy the urge that we can simply do better. A way to travel faster than trains on land, while avoiding the hassles of modern congested air travel and being more environmentally friendly.
*(a clarification on terminology – since multiple companies and groups are working on hyperloop technologies, all referring to their product as a ‘Hyperloop’, there is no single ‘The Hyperloop’. Thanks to Musk’s flamboyance, we have a generic name for a mode of transportation more impressive than any currently in use.)
The invention of the vacuum pump in the 17th century laid the basis – by evacuating an environment, you could simulate the low pressure of high altitudes, and reduce air drag. Various suggestions were made over the years, but it was only with the arrival of later technologies that two viable mechanisms came up – magnetic levitation (like a maglev bullet train) or a layer of moving air (a la hovercraft).
Switch back to 2012, when Musk’s declaration of a new form of transport, with its newly coined name, brought this convergence of technologies back into the public consciousness. In a 57-page white-paper released to the public in August 2013 under SpaceX, he outlined his plans for how this system would look – an aerodynamic pod in a steel tube from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a journey of 600 km in 35 minutes. ‘Air bearings’ at the bottom of the pod, much like on an air hockey table, would reduce friction while it hurtled through the tube.
Crucially however, Musk did not commit either of his companies to building one, but multiple parties worldwide leapt at the concept and set about building Hyperloop. Virgin Hyperloop One next door in LA, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Delft Hyperloop appear to be the frontrunners.
The appeal is obvious: because of the ease of moving at high speeds without resistance, a constant propulsion system is not needed. This cuts down energy requirements drastically, vis a vis a vehicle that travels at similar speeds like an airplane. Did we say similar? Commercial airplanes currently travel at max cruising speeds of about 925 kmph; a Hyperloop is projected to travel at 1200 kmph.
Additionally, since only electric energy is used to power the entire network, a 100% renewable, self-sustaining system, incorporating for example solar panels along the length of the 150-250 km tubes is certainly possible. A greener, cheaper, lightning fast mode of public transport that can move millions more passengers annually – what’s not to like?
Critics think that suggestions of hyperloops ever being ‘cheap’ are outrageous. The kind of money required to develop even a short link between cities less than 250 km apart is anywhere between Musk’s lowball figure of $6 bn to a more realistic $13 bn proposed by Hyperloop One. There are also safety concerns, thanks to a long, high-tech, vacuum sealed transportation system being an ideal terrorist target.
The LA based Hyperloop One, which tied up with Richard Branson’s Virgin group in 2017, is also aggressively pursuing an alternate use of the technology in the Kingdom of Shiny New Things – Dubai. Safety and passenger comfort are crucial for passenger transportation, but not so when you’re transporting multicoloured crates and containers. In August 2016, Hyperloop One announced a deal with the world's third largest port operator, DP World, to develop a cargo off-loading system at DP World's flagship port of Jebel Ali in Dubai.
In the midst of all this speculation and a frantic race to be the first to build (companies have been signing MoUs with various parties worldwide left, right and centre), only one initiative is currently in progress. Elon Musk’s pet competition to see who can go the fastest. The Hyperloop Pod Competition raises interesting questions on where innovation can come from, in the age of ever powerful Big Tech (looking at you, Amazon and Google) and whether open source is even a thing anymore.
Part 2: In conversation with Aditya Ranade, team lead of IIT Madras' Avishkar Hyperloop.
Student Teams laying the tracks
Enter Avishkar Hyperloop. The student team from IIT Madras made headlines recently when they went to the Finals of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition 2019, held in Hawthorne, California. Narrowly missing out on being one of the three teams to test run their pod on the 1.25 km purpose-built track (or tube, really), they nonetheless wowed the competition, receiving an invite from Virgin Hyperloop One to their headquarters, as well as admiration from Musk himself. A remarkable achievement, given it was only their second appearance in the competition.
A conversation with the current Team Lead, Aditya Ranade, a fifth-year dual degree student, gave an insight into how Indian teams in Science and Technology are beginning to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
But first, what is the Pod Competition? SpaceX and Musk may never have been the frontrunners in developing a realistic hyperloop system, to scale – in a humorous aside, Ranade joked that he believed Musk was more concerned about the contribution of his own hyperloop to the Boring Company’s tunnel digging business, rather than SpaceX. However, they’ve stayed relevant and created a large amount of buzz thanks to the Pod Competition.
As part of the move to open-source the technology, the competition was started to get submissions from teams of engineering students across the world, that could actually determine the course of the Hyperloop in the future. At best, to truly pool resources to create a legitimate new mode of transportation, this could be a bold, pioneering move – allowing students to work on a technology at such a nascent stage, where their innovations could dictate its implementation is unprecedented.
Hyperloop, like most ambitious technical ideas, has its critics – perhaps a fair share more than others. One of the accusations levelled at the competition, and hyperloop by extension, is that handing over the reigns to students without pumping in resources and effort at the highest level to have a real crack at making it reality, proves the lack of collective seriousness in the project, and its unlikely prospect to be of real utility.
Additionally, it is believed that SpaceX is just a glamorous façade to draw attention to the competition when their involvement is token at best – Elon has his gaze firmly on Mars. If a lack of seriousness was the case though, why would some of the brightest young minds around the world be devoting months of work and testing for a project likely to fail, given they are well aware of its problems?
The answer comes from Aditya: “While there certainly will be problems related to infrastructure and permissions, we’re quite sure the technology has the potential to take off and succeed right now, even in India.”
Building the Pod
After whittling down the entrants from over 1500 to 50 to 20 to the final 4 who will test their pod, the competition is based on one criterion: speed. Top speed to be precise, since the pod will accelerate and decelerate over portions of the track, in order to come to a stop at the finish line without crashing. However, Aditya explained that initial acceleration and braking were the critical factors to achieve this top speed, as opposed to the power of the electric motors used.
Team Avishkar’s Pod at the event drew quite a few eyes towards it: Aside from being the only Asian competitor (a large Indian flag at their tent was enough to pull large crowds of diaspora), theirs was also the longest by far. At 9 feet long, yet lesser width than their competitors, the Electronics and Propulsion teams fit their components one behind the other in a line, achieving maximum space utilisation and aerodynamic design both. But the Pod would not have stood there without extensive funding and support.
A popular misconception to burst: Indian teams work on significantly smaller budgets than their Western counterparts, and hence use inferior components and cannot compete. Across the board, this trend is being flipped - Indian teams and submissions for international technological competitions are often very well-funded. Avishkar’s budget was well over 1.2 crore rupees; TeamIndus, a private Indian competitor for the (now defunct) Google Lunar XPRIZE spent over $70 million, miles ahead of the other teams.
A majority of Avishkar’s funds were from industry sponsors including TI India, Hexaware and SMC Corporation. While their institute did fund about a fourth of the budget, the difference was made by what the IITs are renowned for – Alumni funding meant the team’s initial starting capital before having to approach corporate sponsors, was about 40 lakh rupees.
Indian engineers may be able to spend money, but in a telling sign of the state of high-end Indian manufacturing, almost every component used to construct the Pod was sourced internationally. Only the chassis and the shell were made by Indian manufacturers while certain parts were machined in-house, in IITM’s workshop laboratories. Unlike other used custom-built PCBs and other electronics, all of their electronics was off the shelf and adapted to fit the problem statement.
What is truly remarkable about this team and their achievement is how they set about working to build something from scratch that aimed to compete with the world’s best. Only undergraduate students worked on the team, without full-time assistance by any professors or advisors. Keep in mind that it was only their second appearance, and the previous year had some harsh lessons – the team fell at the second round, the final design round.
“The final design round entailed testing of components that we had to report, and an in-depth study of the design by SpaceX engineers. We did not have a clear idea of the kind of attention to detail paid to design, and how we would conduct the testing given we did not have anywhere near the kind of required low pressure infrastructure needed.”
says Aditya, but they learnt from that failing, and innovated.
The next year, they beat off strong competition from the other 49 teams to qualify for the Finals and book their tickets to LA. As he had observed the preceding year, the kind of infrastructure needed to test components in a setup akin to hyperloop run conditions is difficult and inaccessible to most teams.
Necessity is the mother of innovation. The team developed a testing apparatus for the brake pads, costing around 1.5 lakh rupees, where a wheel was rotated at a very high rpm simulating the face-stretching speeds of the Pod (Avishkar’s was designed to be able to attain a maximum speed of 350 kmph). The weight of the wheel was chosen so as to accurately simulate the momentum of the Pod at the peak of its velocity distribution, when braking kicks in to allow the pod to come to a gradual (or quick, if needed) stop. Accordingly, a torque vs RPM curve was plotted, critical information to be able to determine if the Pod design is feasible to run in a hyperloop.
It turns out the testing apparatus was far more accurate and simpler than existing setups in IITM laboratories, leading MTech. And PhD. students to approach the team with requests to use it for their respective projects! In addition to this, they also tested the cells in a vacuum, as well as a few other electronic components
Help will always be given to those who ask for it, said a certain school headmaster once, and so did the team receive assistance when needed. “I’d like to highlight the contribution of three people in particular, who helped immensely with the kind of funding and permissions we got', said Aditya. “Ravi Santhanam, the ex-MD of Hindustan Motors and an IITM alumnus, pitched our case to top manufacturing companies and helped immensely; Dr. Satyanarayan Chakravarthy, from the Department of Aerospace Engineering with his industry contacts; and Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Electrical Engineering department, who was an advisor to the Ministry of Transport.” They also approached individual professors of the Aerospace and Electrical Engineering departments for their expertise in certain areas, to validate their test results.
Gulf to the best
The post-competition high of a competition like this is illusory, where regardless of the result, a good performance is followed by a bubble of congratulations and praise, media attention and rationalisations that ‘we did our best’. It’s easy to forget the other side. While Team Avishkar scraped into the Top 10 on the 5th and final day, European institutes like Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM), ETH Zurich, EPFL and Delft University were leagues ahead.
While these teams ‘raced through the tests’ in the initial days, Team Avishkar struggled with faults and figuring out the optimal way to go about their testing. According to Aditya Ranade, this gulf in performance boiled down to three major factors: Experience, Technological support, and minimal barriers.
To start, the teams that finished in the Top 4 have been attending the competition since its announcement in 2015 and first installation in January of 2017, allowing them to refine their submissions, learn from their mistakes, and know exactly what to troubleshoot during testing. Second, unlike Avishkar who received only monetary funding (although very significant), several European teams had deep ties with industry partners to receive sponsorship in kind, and even collaborate on research – main TUM partner, Airbus, allowed the student team access to a wide range of testing facilities and technical support.
Finally, Aditya explained that the reason for the large delays during testing had a lot to do with the fact that their Pod had to be completely disassembled due to customs issues while flying to LA. No, it wasn’t due to American Customs and the TSA with their draconian reputation; Indian customs officials in Chennai refused to let the team transport their Pod as a whole unit, despite bonafide letters from IIT Madras and prior exemption, when the Institute helped in easing customs for international procurements during manufacturing.
But Ranade and the team are optimistic – well aware of their shortcomings in the previous year, they’re gunning to be among the Top 3 in the next edition in 2021, one aspect of which is sure to bring a gleam to their eyes – there are plans to expand from the 1.25 km track to a 10 km one, incorporating turns, multiple braking points, and a plethora of exciting challenges to work with.
The gap between the Engineering school campus and the real world, is sometimes much larger than people suppose. Actual implementation of projects needs a lot more than just technical know-how or funds, and that’s where things get messy. In India, they can get really messy.
Part 3: Hyperloop in the real world
Outside the competition and its contained excitement however, the real world hasn’t gone anywhere. Hearing there would be an Indian Hyperloop team coming to California, Virgin Hyperloop One co-founder Josh Geigel invited the team over to their headquarters in LA. Both Avishkar and Hyperloop One are working on developing the same technologies – passive magnetic levitation and a linear induction motor – albeit at different scales, resulting in an enthusiastic discussion with hopes of collaboration
The real reason? Hyperloop One signed an ‘agreement of intent’ with the Maharashtra Government in February 2018 to build a hyperloop route between Pune and Mumbai, to the Navi Mumbai airport. In July 2019, the Government approved the plans and announced the DP World – Hyperloop One consortium as the original project proponent for the hyperloop project, announcing it as a public infrastructure project, and leading all parties to proclaim that India will be the site of the world’s first hyperloop.
The prospect sounds hugely enticing to the estimated 1.5 crore annual passengers travelling this route annually, several as a daily commute for work (the two cities are hubs for software companies, MNCs and industry, making up the heart of Maharashtra's economic powerhouse). Hyperloop One claims the 150 km journey that takes 3 hours today by road, will be shortened to just 13 minutes. The realm of science fiction, yes, but Hyperloop does not shy away from being exactly that.
A massive spanner in these works may have come in the form of the political tumult that hit Maharashtra following the State elections in October. Coalition partners, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have demanded new Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray scrap the project citing the expenditure and risk. A slew of infrastructure projects like the proposed bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and a new expressway has been put on hold by the new government, ostensibly to reprioritise govt. funds for farm loan waivers and cheap meals for the poor, among other initiatives.
Confusion in the minds of safety regulators - in particular, who the hell exactly would regulate a project that is neither a railway or road transport - led to delays, postponing work for after the elections.
A worried Richard Branson himself, the evangelist granddaddy of the Virgin Group, hurriedly flew down to Mumbai in December to speak with the new Chief Minister, throwing a new Mumbai-London Virgin Atlantic flight into the mix. Unlike their partners, the Shiv Sena has been cautiously diplomatic about this project and others, stating only that it recognised the infrastructure important to the state and that appropriate processes would be put into place.
Even if the project were to get the green light though, the road ahead is uncertain given it being notoriously difficult for land acquisition, tariffs on imports and various other barriers that have historically existed in India to large foreign infrastructure projects. Geigel wanted the IITM team’s inputs on the current on-ground scenario, possibly to allay concerns that the government bodies involved were not telling them all they needed to know, said Aditya.
Team Avishkar’s achievement comes well-timed with the announcement of the Mumbai-Pune hyperloop, and indeed, a short route of this kind of profile is the most likely to succeed. Being in the same state, over a relatively pliant terrain, the conditions are positive. Connecting two highly urbanised cities with significant volumes of upper-middle-class commuters to be able to recoup initial investment is also crucial - approximately 75 million passengers journey between Mumbai and Pune annually, which is projected to leap to 130 million by 2026.
A clear idea about the kind of money that will have to be pumped in to make this happen isn’t forthcoming from either party at the moment, but DP World, who is also a major ports and logistics operator in India, is set to invest $500 million to complete phase 1 of the project. Phase 1 involves building an 11.8 km demonstration track by 2023, proving that the concept is viable for passenger operations.
An expensive experiment indeed, and one with sharp criticism.
While in theory, energy costs of the hyperloop would be close to nil, because of the solar panels built on the tube, projected estimates for the project place the total cost at least $10 billion. Critics including former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan have called the project a case of misplaced priorities, especially in Pune where some areas have booming construction projects coming up, without taking into proper account basic utilities like water and electricity.
Time will tell whether Hyperloop truly leaps into our civilisation, bringing to reality the blueprints of a technology dreamed up by futurists centuries ago. We seem well poised to do so, but equal doubts about the implementation of such a capital-intensive model of transportation remain. Will those who don’t board in time be left behind? Or will we rue having pumped all our money and time into hyperloop’s shiny tubes, when there were more pressing problems at hand?
It’s the perennial question of ‘Avishkar’ – of the invention.