Making hyperloop a reality: Virgin Hyperloop One
In late-2014, hyperloop was an idea drawn on a whiteboard in a garage. Less than three years later, a 500m-long full-scale prototype was built in the Nevada desert, complete with a levitation system, propulsion, power and electronics systems, controls, vacuum structures and an autonomous pod, capturing the attention of transportation agencies worldwide. How did it happen in such a short amount of time and is this travel experience realistically possible? Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop One co-Founder and CTO, explains more.
Full-systems test underway at Virgin Hyperloop One’s ‘DevLoop’ test site
One or our key design principles is rapid iteration; the drive to develop and test components early in the design process to understand how materials work in practice. This is clear in the layout of our office. Our Test and Development hub sits right next to the design engineers, separated only by a communal kitchen. Once the design engineers designed the components on screen and confirmed they worked in theory, the experienced welders and technicians took the design and built it. Then came the fun part of being an engineer: Making sure it worked as the models predicted. It was the recognition that the builders and the tradesmen are just as important as the engineers that led this joint effort. This principle of rapid designing, building, testing and re-design was key to developing parts rapidly and learning from early mistakes.
A new era in transportation
We often compare the testing that we did to the Wright brothers’ first flight accomplishment. The Wright brothers’ genius wasn’t that they were gifted physicists but their recognition that to become a master you need experimentation time. They realised that all of the people trying to fl y before them were just falling for a brief period before the ‘test’ would be over. How can you become an expert in something new with only seconds of practice? The insight was that they needed time to learn, so they asked the U.S. government where in the U.S. had the longest and highest sustained winds – Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was the place. They first took their glider in 1900 to that coastal city and within a few days of testing quickly surpassed the cumulative total test time of everyone in the world – though it would still take another three years before they achieved their first successful powered flight. The notion that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to become a domain expert – from world-class pianists to professional athletes to engineering PhDs – each reinforces this concept: Expertise comes from experience and innovation comes from expertise and inspiration. It’s within this insight that we live and breathe as a company – using computer simulations and test rigs for rapid, frequent and extended testing time. It’s been over a century since the Wright brothers first showed us human flight was possible. It’s time for a new era in transportation capable of carrying us forward for the next 100 years.
A new solution
Hyperloop is a new solution that is direct, on-demand, autonomous and connects all forms of transportation. Passengers board, or cargo is loaded, onto the hyperloop vehicle which accelerates gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at speeds of up to 700mph for long-distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag. Hyperloop systems can be built on columns or tunnelled below ground to avoid dangerous level crossings and wildlife. It’s fully autonomous and enclosed, eliminating pilot error and weather hazards. It’s safe and clean, with no direct carbon emissions. Speed is not the only way in which hyperloop is different. With hyperloop, there are no timetables. Several pods depart per minute and the system does not require stops at every station. Riding a hyperloop will be as smooth as riding an elevator – grandma-friendly, kid-friendly and vomit-free.
In May 2017, we proved to the world this technology is a reality. We made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully ran a test on our full-scale ‘DevLoop’ system, a 500m-long test track in the Nevada desert, about 30 miles outside downtown Las Vegas. It was the fi rst functioning hyperloop system in the world, completed with power electronics, an autonomous pod, motor control and braking systems, levitation track and guidance systems – and more than 1,100 tonnes of steel and concrete. The vacuum pumps reduced the air in the tube to 100 pascals, or 1/1000th atmosphere pressure. On 29 July 2017, Phase 2 testing was complete. XP-1, the world’s only vehicle that achieves autonomous high-speed propulsion and levitation in a vacuum environment, accelerated from zero to 309km/h (192mph, 86m/s) and back down to 0km/h again in less than 500m. It was a momentous occasion in the company’s history and an incredible testament to the team that put it all together in two and a half years. But progress didn’t stop there. That December we achieved even faster speeds and tested a new airlock which helps transition test pods between atmospheric and vacuum conditions. Virgin Hyperloop One achieved a historic test speed record of nearly 387km/h (240mph, 107m/s) during our third phase of testing at DevLoop.
Vote of confidence
In 2018, our focus has been on our first commercial projects. We’ve already seen a number of ground-breaking commitments from governments around the world – in India, UAE, KSA and the U.S. who understand that transformative technology like hyperloop can leapfrog their economies and deliver unprecedented connectivity and opportunity to their citizens. In India for example, we signed a Framework Agreement in February with the Indian state of Maharashtra to build a Pune-Mumbai hyperloop route beginning with an operational demonstration track that will link central Pune, Navi Mumbai International Airport and Mumbai in 25 minutes; connecting 26 million people. In June, we welcomed the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri. Devendra Fadnavis and representatives from the State Government including the Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority (PMRDA) at our DevLoop test site. The Chief Minister and other esteemed guests were able to witness a full-scale hyperloop in action. It was an honour to host the Chief Minister, demonstrating a vote of confidence as we advance into the second half of our ongoing feasibility study and progress in accordance with the Framework Agreement. Speaking with our Chairman Richard Branson, the Chief Minister confirmed: “We should be able to start moving on this project very fast.”
One of our biggest challenges, but also one of our biggest opportunities, is on the regulatory side. More than two-thirds of the hyperloop systems fit under existing regulatory standards – across aerospace, rail and automotive. But for the remaining third, we’ll need a new standard. Our approach to safety is two-fold: To work with regulators from the onset and to build the highest-level safety standards into each and every component that we test. We’ve already begun the early stages of the certification process with country governments.
Our commercial progress is accelerating rapidly. But more importantly, we understand the rigorous nature of testing and development for large-scale infrastructure projects. We are seeking the right approvals and engaging the right stakeholders to make this technology a reality.
Delivering future travel
I used to get a lot of questions regarding ‘is it possible?’. Now I get more and more questions about ‘when can I ride it?’. We’re not looking to build something decades from now, we’re talking years. There are too many people who are caught in soul-crushing traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. It’s our mission to build a system that will give back some of that time and deliver the travel experience of the future. When Orville and Wilbur packed up their gear and went to Kitty Hawk the commonly held belief was “man isn’t meant to fly” – upon their return, we could.
Josh Giegel is the CTO and co-Founder of Virgin Hyperloop One. Josh brings with him an unmatched background in thermodynamics, heat transfer, compressible fluid mechanics, power cycles, turbomachinery and nonlinear structural analysis, as well as a strong history in hardware-based development. He is leading the design, analysis and innovation for thermodynamic elements of the hyperloop system. Previously, Josh led research activities at Echogen Power Systems, a start-up in the waste heat-to-power energy sector. Prior to Echogen, Josh worked at SpaceX where he served as the lead analyst on six different successfully tested rocket engines. Josh received an MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University where he was a Graduate Engineering Fellow. He holds a BSME from Penn State University where he graduated with honours and was first in his class.