How to build a Hyperloop
Over a thousand students flooded Texas A&M last weekend for a piece of Elon Musk's moonshot
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a young aerospace engineer from Cairo University named Samar Abdel Fatta sat at the end of a long hallway of a Texas football stadium trying hard to contain her excitement. Amid a sea of matching university-branded T-shirts and cowboy boots, she was a bit of an anomaly: smart glasses, a neat black blazer, hijab. Behind her was a foam display board covered in diagrams detailing her team’s plan for the Hyperloop, a super-fast, tube-based transportation system popularized by billionaire Elon Musk in 2013.
The display was her reason for traveling over 7,000 miles to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. She was there to compete in the first-ever SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Design Competition. And time permitting, she also wanted to visit the NASA Space Center in Houston. “I hope I don’t get lost,” she laughed. After all, it was her first time in the US.
This was the Hyperloop's big coming-out party: over 1,000 students from 120 colleges and 20 countries, all vying to make Musk's dream a reality. If there was skepticism that the Hyperloop would be too expensive, too complicated, or too dangerous to build, it wasn't to be found in Kyle Field. Everyone there was a true believer. Especially the engineers and executives from the Hyperloop startups who were there to bask in purposeful glow, as well as sniff out new talent.
A quick introduction to the Hyperloop: In 2013, Musk published his "alpha paper" which theorized that aerodynamic aluminum capsules filled with passengers or cargo could be propelled through a nearly airless tube at a velocity close to the speed of sound. He called it a "fifth mode of transportation" and argued it could help change the way we live, work, trade, and travel. The most famous scenario he proposed was a trip from LA to San Francisco only taking 30 minutes. Predictably, the idea captured the imaginations of engineers and investors across the world. And last year, Musk’s company SpaceX said that it would sponsor a pod design contest among university students, a precursor to building a full-scale test system.
Day one of the competition was just for the students and judges, as well as a handful of media and a few corporate sponsors. Thousands of student competitors, each wearing matching shirts, spent the day critiquing each other’s work and engaging in team chants. US Secretary Anthony Foxx delivered a keynote address, in which he declared the Hyperloop to be America's next "moonshot." Day two, however, was opened to the public. Old men in suspenders, babies in strollers, and everyone in between filled the cavernous Kyle Field, eager to catch a glimpse of the future of transportation — and also play with the Oculus Rift, Hendo Hoverboard, Tesla Model S, and other high-tech goodies on display.
But Samar Abdel Fatta didn’t have a team shirt, a chant, nor anyone to chant with. She was all by herself — the only member of Cairo University’s Nova Hyperloop Team to secure a visa in time for the competition. But if she was nervous or lonely, she didn’t show it.
"To be honest, I thought I would be in misery," she said. "We don’t know much about the project, and it’s a new idea. However, when I came here, I thought, okay, we are good. We all have similar ideas. Some different concepts. Your mind is working, and you have all the passion now to continue working on the project. It’s a great benefit to be a part of that. You’re part of something big."
Fatta’s starry-eyed optimism was reflected in dozens of conversations I had with students over the weekend. They all saw the Hyperloop as a complex puzzle that appealed to the logical, engineering-obsessed sides of their brains. And they all hoped to be among those teams who would get the chance to build real-life versions of their pods and test them out on Musk’s personal Hyperloop track this summer. But they were also there to change the world.
"The Hyperloop to me means being able to connect cities, making it more efficient than a plane, but as convenient as a train," said Mars Geuze, a member of the Delft University of Technology’s Hyperloop team. "I want people to conveniently be able to travel very long distances, but [by] barely using any energy."
"We have all this dreaming of what the future could look like," he added. "But we’re actually trying to realize it."
Other competitors spoke eloquently of the Hyperloop’s more egalitarian potential features, such as solar panels to both power the system as well as generate electricity for surrounding communities, and an affordable ticket price (some said they thought trips on the Hyperloop should be free) to ensure it wouldn’t become a transit system just for the one percent. They theorized a loop between San Francisco and Los Angeles could be built for a tenth of the price of a high-speed rail system along a similar route, which California has been planning for some time.
Some teams presented full pod designs; others presented just subsystems for propulsion, air levitation, or braking. A team of judges from Texas A&M, SpaceX, and Tesla evaluated each team’s designs on a variety of criteria, but mostly they were looking for the ability (and money) to build real-life versions of their designs. SpaceX is building a test track near its Southern California headquarters, and the winners would get a chance to race their prototypes on it this summer.
"We have all this dreaming of what the future could look like, but we’re actually trying to realize it."
The variety of teams was astounding. Mostly it was one team per school, but some universities sent multiple teams — UC-Berkeley and the Rochester Institute of Technology each had three, while Texas A&M sent seven. One team, OpenLoop, was a coalition of six different universities: Cornell University, Harvey Mudd College, University of Michigan, Northeastern University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Princeton University. Some of the teams weren’t even affiliated with any university. rLoop, for example, was a Hyperloop team that formed on Reddit.
"We dubbed ourselves the crowd-sourced engineering think tank," said Brent Lessard, an engineering student from Toronto who serves as project manager for the 140-member rLoop team. "There are times when we’re working on things, and the question arises, ‘Should we be making this available?’ Because this is a competition. But the answer has always resoundingly been yes. We’re putting it out there."
SpaceX said the contest was an opportunity to promote STEM education among students. But it was also an opportunity for all the various startups and corporations who see dollar signs in Musk’s Hyperloop design to get together and check out the competition. Hyperloop Technologies Inc., an LA-based startup building a test track in North Las Vegas, had a photobooth and a raffle to give away BB-8 toys. AECOM, a gigantic global construction firm, brought a virtual reality headset to show off its renderings for the test track it was building for SpaceX. And Arx Pax laid out some copper plates so a select few could test out its Hendo Hoverboard. It also brought a section of translucent tubing to show off its magnetic field architecture technology — a Hyperloop in miniature.
Brogan BamBrogan, the oddly named, mustachioed chief technology officer at Hyperloop Technologies, said he was "blown away" by the student presentations. BamBrogan’s company helped sponsor the competition, offering $150,000 in prize money for the winning teams and a chance to work with real Hyperloop engineers. Meanwhile, his company was full steam ahead with its testing, with plans for its "Kitty Hawk moment" later this year. "Full speed, full scale," he promised.
I asked him about skepticism surrounding the cost and practicality of the Hyperloop — some have referred to it as Musk’s "pipe dream" — but BamBrogan dismissed such criticism. "People expect there to be skepticism, and I think maybe a year or two ago Hyperloop was pitched as a sci-fi fantasy," he said. "But you see companies like ours building real hardware, or all of these engineering students who are some of the smartest minds in the world who are delivering real solutions. No one is calling the Hyperloop a space elevator."
The top awards went mostly to the teams from huge, well-funded schools, like MIT, Delft, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and UC-Irvine. In total, 22 teams will advance to the next stage, where they will get the chance to build and test their pods for SpaceX. Up to 10 additional teams may be added to the list in the coming weeks, the company said.
Fatta’s team was not among the list of finalists, but her designs won an award for "design concept innovation." And when Musk himself strode out onstage at the very end — a reveal that was totally expected and still managed to be thrilling — Fatta was among those students whom the SpaceX CEO called on to ask a question. She asked whether Musk planned on holding more student competitions in the future. The billionaire industrialist grinned thoughtfully, as if the idea never occurred to him.
"I think the work you guys are doing is going to blow people’s minds," he told Fatta. "Given this level of sophistication, there’s no question we’re going to have another Hyperloop competition. I think it’s only going to get better and better."