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Hyperloop: just hype or the next big thing?

It promises to cut down travel time drastically, but it remains to be seen if it is meant for the masses

brunch Updated: Apr 25, 2017 11:22 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Hyperloop

This is how a Hyperloop TT station would look like once it is ready

It’s been called the fifth mode of transport! It may well be the biggest breakthrough in travel – bigger than airplanes, trains and even the automobile. Imagine a ground journey in which you enter a Hyperloop capsule and get from Delhi to Chandigarh in 10 minutes, Mumbai to Delhi in 55 minutes. That’s faster than airplane travel. It just comes with one caveat. Is Hyperloop just hype or will it actually turn into reality?

How does it work?

Hyperloop, at its simplest, is just this. A tube which is almost completely vacuum-less and frictionless. Inside the tube are passenger-carrying capsules that levitate in mid-air with electromagnetic suspension. Think of it like an air hockey table where the puck glides on air. A small nudge, and it keeps gathering speed all on its own. No pollution, no massive power grid to run it, no circling an airport waiting for your flight to get cleared to land. But this is where I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin this story from the start.

It’s been around for a while

The idea of passenger-carrying capsules zipping through depressurised tubes dates back to more than a century ago. A tunnel was even built under the New York subway for try-outs. They even came up with a name for this. Unfortunately, the ‘Atmospheric Railway’ died its own death very soon. Mainly because the technology just wasn’t there to make it happen.

That was then

Today, the technology exists. And it once again took Elon Musk, the maverick big idea guy, to revive it. He presented a paper on it and challenged the world to make it happen. Many companies are working towards the first major commercial installation of the Hyperloop that will actually carry people. Right at the top are companies like Transpod and Hyperloop One, but the one that seems to have hyperlooped away from the others and is speeding out of the gate is HTT.

The cutaway of a Hyperloop capsule

Crowdsourcing is the future

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is a crowdsourced company that has invited the best brains all across the world to help create the future. More than 800 engineers and scientist spanning the planet now work on HTT technology, some collaborate part-time and others full-time for just stock options.

HTT now has sanctioned projects all over the world, including the Middle East and Europe. According to the HTT, we should have the first Hyperloop system carrying people in about three years. HTT and Hyperloop One are both proposing massive systems here in India and according to some sources, multiple state governments are excited about this. The first sanctioned India Hyperloop project may well be announced soon.

The barriers

So, will India get a Hyperloop transportation system? Will we move faster than an aircraft whilst still on ground? Here are some of the major barriers that must be crossed before we can buy our first Hyperloop ticket.

Cost: Think of the land required and the level of construction needed to run a series of tubes across the length and breadth of the country. One solution is to have all the tubes on an elevated grid that runs on top of the railway tracks that we already have.

Environment: Making an entire tube that runs thousands of miles vacuum-less is tough. Then each station along the way will have an airlock. Every time a capsule arrives, the airlock will have to close, pressurise, and open again.

Capacity: Just how many people would such a tube carry safely? There can’t be too many capsules within each tube. If the costs of building one are high and it only carries a few people, then this will just become a toy for the rich.

Safety: Precise technology needs precise maintenance. Dirt and grime could be the death knell for this. Even a slight misalignment in the tube could lead to a halt. Also, being stranded inside a tube miles from a city or habitat isn’t something to look forward to.

Passenger comfort: Being inside a tube travelling at such speeds could be unpleasant and frightening. We are talking about serious acceleration forces that may have major effects on the human body.

Lots of barriers to cross: But current technology almost always seems to succeed against all odds. Hyerloop has been called the broadband of transportation. We may not be very far from the day when we can all log into the fifth mode of transportation.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, April 16

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