At the beginning of the year, SpaceX brought its high-speed transportation services to a whole new level with its very first Hyperloop Pod Competition. The company, which designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, has the intention to revolutionize terrestrial transportation with Hyperloop, a conceptual high-speed transportation system put forward by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
In order to get fresh ideas, the company offered its Hyperloop transportation services to the 27 teams of students from across the world at the Hyperloop Pod Competition Design in Texas last August. The challenge: design and build the best high-speed capsule that can ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.
The Hyperloop should get passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, but placing the pod inside the tube takes time. Once the door is closed and sealed, the air has to be pumped out in order to reduce friction. And this depressurization process takes between 30 and 45 minutes, adding time to the half-hour journey.
HYPERLOOP POD COMPETITION I
From January 27-29, 2017, after months of preparation, only three teams tested their pods in the 0.75 mile long Hyperloop track at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Regrettably, there was not enough time for all the other teams to race, and some did not pass the mechanical, structural, navigational and other safety tests. The MIT team, the eventual winner of the competition, the team from Delft University of Technology and Team Warr from the Technical University of Munich made the cut.
Warr was awarded the prize for the fastest run, which resulted from a last minute idea. The team’s pod was initially using electrodynamic suspension to levitate, but since levitation was not a requirement to win the competition, the students decided to disable the magnets and just use wheels to reduce friction. In an email exchange with us, Gabriele Semino, one of the leaders of team Warr, said they won because of their “ability to adapt quickly to changes”. She continued, “When due to technical issues it became clear that the speed of the pods would be limited to less than what was planned with – 94 kph instead of around 300 kph. The team was able to adapt the pod quickly to these new circumstances, something that the other teams could not. This was the reason why the WARR Pod could perform so well compared to the others and be the only one reaching the end of the tube.”
But the two other teams did not go home empty-handed. The MIT team won the safety and reliability award. Even though the Delft team pod did not reach the end of the track, they won the prize for the best designed Hyperloop capsule.
HYPERLOOP POD COMPETITION II
This competition is the first of its kind anywhere in the world and it attracted a lot of attention and excitement. So why would SpaceX wait so long to host a second one? Hyperloop Pod Competition II is scheduled for August 25-27, 2017 with both new and returning teams of students. This time, the main goal is focusing on maximum speed. “Competition Weekend II will be judged solely on one criteria: maximum speed with successful deceleration (i.e. without crashing). This is different from Competition Weekend I, which featured multiple judging criteria,” SpaceX says. In addition, unlike the first Competition Weekend, there will not be separate Pod classes (e.g. wheeled vehicles, micro-Pods, etc.); all Pods shall be judged in a single class with the single aforementioned maximum speed criterion.
Sierra Circuits behind UW Hyperloop
Undertaking such a project demands vision and dedication, but funding as well. To help students accomplish their goals, Sierra Circuits chose to sponsor the team from the University of Washington. How do they describe themselves? “We are students. We are engineers. We are designers. We are dreamers. We are hyperloop.” Unfortunately, this dedicated team of students/engineers/designers/dreamers did not get to race their pod during the first competition despite winning the design and construction award. “We qualified to race but there was simply not enough time,” one of the leaders of the UW Hyperloop team explained to us. However, they won the Subsystem Safety Technical Excellence Award during the design phase of the competition for their pod designed to reach 100 mph and levitates using magnets. For Competition Weekend II, the UW team has one goal in mind: race and win!
Warr to defend its Fastest Pod title
UW Hyperloop is not the only team returning. The big winners of the first competition weekend, Team Warr is also back in the challenge. Gabriele Semino told us, “While we already won the prize for Fastest Pod in January, we see the second competition as a chance to optimize the design of the pod for very high speeds. Although I cannot reveal too many details about our new design yet, I can say that this time around we will try to reach considerably higher speeds than in the first competition. This will hopefully allow us to defend the title of Fastest Pod.”
Do not expect them to come without improving the pod, though: “We are building a completely new pod based on a radically new design.”
But the real challenge for team Warr is to bring their project to the next step. Although they are aware that SpaceX is not planning to work directly on the Hyperloop in the future, they want to state that “if this should change, we would be glad to help make the Hyperloop reality”.
With all these competitive teams ready to bring their pods to the highest speed and break records, the Hyperloop Pod Competition II is the one can’t-miss event of the summer, if not of the year! All that is left to do now is wait and see which students have the fastest pod.
HYPERLOOP IN THE FUTURE
With 6 million people traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco every year, Hyperloop would be a safe and affordable alternative to air transportation. No need for travelers to worry about safety and cost.
If we take a look at the numbers on its website, we can see that SpaceX has figured out pretty much every aspect of the Hyperloop transportation system. The sealed capsules can carry up to 28 passengers each and travel along the interior of the tube, departing every two minutes on average (up to every 30 seconds during peak usage hours). We also learn that the capsules will be separated within the steel tube by approximately 23 miles (37 km) during operation. When you do the math: capsules with 28 people on board leaving every two minutes equals 840 passengers per hour.
From the website: “It is possible to further increase the Hyperloop capacity by reducing the time between departures. The current baseline requires up to 40 capsules in activity during rush hour, six of which are at the terminals for loading and unloading of the passengers in approximately 5 minutes.” And the price? According to the company’s calculations, a $20 ticket could amortize the $6 billion cost over 20 years of the Hyperloop on the condition that it can transport 7.4 million people each way every year.
From concept to reality
SpaceX acknowledges that “the Hyperloop is considered an open source transportation concept.” Elon Musk made it clear that he was too busy to find time to work on this project. And since neither SpaceX nor he is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies, it seems like this project will not be ready to operate anytime soon.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies revealed last June it has signed an agreement with the South Korean government. Hanyang University, the engineering research school, has been commissioned to make the Hyperloop a reality by 2021. According to the agreement, they will work on the development of the tube technologies, safety standards and regulations as well as the licensing of several technologies such as levitation and propulsion. HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborm said, “We are ready to build.”
And they are not alone. Hyperloop One announced in July that they had completed the first full-scale test of the Hyperloop technology on May 12. The company conducted the test in a vacuum environment in Nevada and reached a speed of 70 mph. It is far from the speed required to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in only 35 minutes. The new 28 feet long aerodynamic pod travelled in the closed-tube using electromagnetic propulsion and magnetic levitation. Those conditions are comparable with airplanes flying thousands of feet above the ground. Without air resistance, the pods can travel much faster. This is how Hyperloop plans to become a reality.