Hyper-speed travel could be just around the corner

If Hyperloop becomes reality – and tests are now taking place – passengers will whizz along tubes in pods at nearly supersonic speed

rLoop showcase their design for Space X's Hyperloop competition. Video: rLoop

 

Travelling by car from Dublin to Belfast takes about 100 minutes. The same journey on a conceptual transport system known as Hyperloop could make the same journey in 10½ minutes, as passengers whizzed along at an average speed of 970km per hour.

The London to Manchester travel time on Hyperloop would be about 15 minutes and the 5½ hour car drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take 30 minutes.

Passengers would travel through a tube held above the ground by concrete pillars, riding along in pods carrying 28 people. Pods could depart every two minutes or less, and be propelled along the tube at up to almost supersonic speed.

It sounds like science fiction but it is very real. Two weeks ago the private company Hyperloop One staged a proof-of- concept of its propulsion system in the Nevada desert, reaching 187km per hour in 1.1 seconds.

Hyperloop One successfully raised €70 million in a funding round. Investors include the French national rail company SNCF. Engineers Arup and Deutsche Bahn are providing support, and former Cisco president Rob Lloyd has been hired as the company’s chief executive.

The Hyperloop concept comes from Elon Musk, a South African-born billionaire businessman and entrepreneur.

Musk set up rocket-launcher company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X) in 2002 and is a founder of online payment system PayPal. His net worth is estimated to be €12.5 billion.

Neither Musk nor Space X are directly involved in developing the Hyperloop concept, but they are facilitating others in making it a reality.

With this in mind, the company announced a competition last June for the best pod design. The 2,000 entries were reduced to just 30, and these entrants will test their pod designs at the end of summer on a mile-long test track track built in California at Space X. The company put €850,000 into the track.

Brent Lessard got together with others over social media to form a group to enter the competition. Their entry is called rLoop. “It organised organically from there. Before we knew it we had a couple hundred people signing up,” he says.

There are about 400 people in rLoop at the moment but only half of them are involved regularly, says Lessard. The members of the group come from 40 countries. They stay in touch over social media.

“The tools that allow us to work like this were not available five years ago,” Lessard says.

“We built a one-12th scale pod to test our control software and engines. I built it in Canada and we put it online [on May 11th],” he says. A man in California wrote software for it, another coder was in Japan, there was a manufacturer in western Canada and a group member in Poland, all working on the test pod at the same time.

Eureka moment

Lessard says that Musk got the idea for Hyperloop while sitting in a traffic jam in California, listening to the radio as plans for an LA-to-San-Francisco bullet train were being discussed. When built, the so-called bullet will rank as one of the slowest high-speed trains in the world despite costing €60 billion. It will run at 264km per hour and take more than 2½ hours to complete the journey.

Musk thought there must be a better way, and so Hyperloop came into existence. He issued a white paper on how Hyperloop might work and invited groups to develop the project. Meanwhile, construction on the bullet train project got under way last year.

The Hyperloop design is certainly novel. Pods will rush along through a clear tube at peak speeds of up to 1,200km per hour. The pods are propelled using a “linear motor”: a flat motor that uses electromagnetism to push the pods along.

The original design called for the pods to float on a cushion of air, but the rLoop team decided to ignore that design because it would make the tube much more expensive.

They chose instead to use magnetic levitation to float the pod as it travelled along the tube.

Much of the technology needed to build Hyperloop is already available. If built as an alternative to the bullet train, the white paper estimates it would cost €5.3 billion.

Lessard believes this is an underestimate, but even if the price were doubled to €10.6 billion it would be well under the €60 billion needed for the bullet train.

TEST TUBE: THE RLOOP EXPERIENCE
Almost 2,000 groups entered an open competition to design passenger pods for Hyperloop. After several judging rounds, this was whittled down to 120. In January these were cut to 30 groups, including one called rLoop.

Dubliner Eoghan Kidney is involved in the project, making use of his experience in video production and rich media. His video on the rLoop project was played as part of rLoop’s entry in the competition.

Kidney first heard of rLoop less than a year ago over Reddit, a social media networking service, where he was watching posts on Space X.

“I thought, This is a major project and they will need media and video content,” says Kidney, who is working on an MA in creative media at DIT. “I thought I might be able to fit in and I ended up playing a role as creative media lead on the project.”

He also did a video presentation for rLoop’s crowd-funding effort. It reached its €61,000 funding target, giving rLoop the money it needs to build the rLoop prototype.

The rLoop entry involves more than 100 people from 40 countries. The group first came together via exchanges over Reddit. It later switched to Slack, an enterprise social network.

“People just started talking to one another, ideas got around and we set up the nonprofit rLoop,” says Kidney. “It seems to include people from all walks of life: engineers, coders, there is a PR department and I am in the media department.

“It is like a turbo-hobby in a big group of people who are passionate about something that could be amazing.”

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