Thu 20 Apr 2017 - Tech

Blood, Sweat & Determination

Kenneth Shirley

Lead Mechanical Engineer

Theodore Roosevelt put his faith in the man in the arena, the competitor whose face is “marred by dust and sweat and blood … but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” That well sums up the 200 men and women, engineers, technicians, welders, and fabricators who built DevLoop, Hyperloop One’s test track north of Las Vegas. No one’s ever built a Hyperloop before, let alone one this fast. We laid the foundations for the first columns in September 2016 and starting running vehicle tests in May.

Building a 1640-foot long elevated steel tube in the Nevada desert for a vehicle that’s now going through it at 192 mph was an engineering and construction challenge. I’m one of the site problem-solvers. My job is to bridge Hyperloop One’s development and design teams in Los Angeles, the manufacturing team at our Metalworks shop in North Las Vegas, and the DevLoop construction site. Someone once called me “engineering spackle.”

Regardless of how careful a schedule any of us keep, each day is different; there are no dull moments. What you thought you were going to do in the morning was generally NOT what was accomplished by 4 p.m. All of this while either freezing in the surprisingly bitter Vegas winter, or roasting in the blazing Vegas summer. Why do I do it? Let me tell you a bit more about the project and I think you’ll see why. Here’s a look at what a day at DevLoop is like.

A Day At DevLoop Begins

About two hours before the sun rises over the Nevada desert, we are up and assembled for our daily meeting, coffee in hand, and eyes still adjusting to the light. The morning standup is where each specialty group gets their daily goals. We point out safety issues and concerns. Discuss any environmental issues, remind people of our responsibility to preserve the work area. Time for the morning “stretch and flex.” It’s a bit of a running joke: The same technician, Danny, has been pigeonholed into leading it every morning. Pouring a little salt in the wound, all in good fun, we end with the most important statement of the day, “Danny, do the stretchy thing.”

The team breaking ground at DevLoop

My Role

When you’re building the first system in the world of its kind, you need someone to bridge across teams, offices, and, sometimes, personalities. The engineering of this project was unique in almost every regard. True, there are larger vacuum chambers in the world. There are more precise large-scale structures. There are equally large tubular constructions in almost every hydro-project found all over the world. And there are large mass driver systems operating at high energy in labs, and now on aircraft carriers. But, with a team the fraction of the usual size and budget, working in the Nevada desert where temperatures range from frigid to blazing, we combined ALL of these components into one system. My role was only a small part, one stone in the arch, and like almost everyone on site, I wore multiple hats. At various times I designed tooling, performed analysis, did machine work, welded, swept floors and shoveled sand. But that’s how we work.

What We Built With DevLoop

In under a year, we built the fourth largest vacuum chamber in the world, 1,640 feet long, with a total air volume roughly equivalent to several family homes. We built a transportation test rig that uses thousands of volts to accelerate our XP-1 vehicle down a guided path at speeds generally reserved for race cars. We designed and built a power distribution system capable of switching off and on in milliseconds. We built relationships with local and international corporations, allowing us to put in place the infrastructure of the ONLY full scale Hyperloop test site on earth. And, at this point, having completed this first system, we have begun testing and have successfully integrated our vacuum, propulsion, levitation, pod, control systems, tube, and structures.

Although it looked easy due to the speed and level of final perfection achieved, we problem-solved many issues on the fly: welding and alignment, power and fluid management, civil engineering, and system control. We faced each challenge, and did it so effectively that on the first pump-down we found only one minor, easily-remedied leak. That’s almost unheard of with vacuum systems, and almost impossible with one this size on your first pump-down.

Nov. 2016: Installation of the ‘fixity,’ or first tube of the DevLoop test track in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

March 2017, Hyperstructure complete. DevLoop site in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

We also installed and successfully tested a delicate medium-voltage system, in itself a challenge. But to do so in a vacuum (where arcing becomes an order of magnitude larger challenge) with no major faults or failures - it’s an incredible feat. We did all of this while maintaining a system accuracy enviable of projects a tenth our size. And all of this in a tube which limited our access to one or two entrances, and required us to maintain a level of construction safety vigilance one would expect to find in a nuclear facility. Following those initial checks, we have built on that foundation with successful test after successful test, which proved our designs worked, and that our engineers and scientists are some of the best in the world.

A Unique Construction Challenge

This project itself was about as brutal a test of a startup’s culture, engineering, and management that could be conceived. I worked at SpaceX for four years, and although the stresses, engineering work, and budget demands were similar, the timeline and tasks-to-manpower ratio we took on with this project seemed far more difficult.

What made our operation unique was the synergy between the designs coming from our Los Angeles Innovation Campus and the fabrication and development going on at Metalworks, the world’s first Hyperloop factory, here in North Las Vegas. It takes a mature organization with mature engineers to recognize the value and trust the input of the technicians, fabricators, and other support staff performing the work. Conversely, it takes mature and intelligent technicians to recognize and value their own experience and opinions enough to voice them with confidence.

But in the end, it is in these small details, daily checklists, and pivotal, even heated discussions that the real strength of a team and organization is formed. Building to the scale of DevLoop requires visionary thinking, but it also requires lugging the generators, cleaning the dust out of the tube, and organizing time tables of 200 engineers, technicians, and fabricators over two shifts.

Another Day At DevLoop

At the end of each day on my drive home I often stop on the road, kill the truck, and get out for a moment. I seldom have time to just stop and look at the desert, the tube, the colors, and sounds. There is a stillness in the air of this valley, and in those final quiet moments of the day’s light it’s easy to settle your thoughts, quiet your mind. You can envision the tube extending into the distance, a line to the horizon. A nebulous strand of silk carrying us into the future world. A world where my children will wonder at the stories of road trips, how we ever survived with long road trips, traffic accidents, hours spent fighting with siblings in the back seat, flats on the side of the road, brutal lines in security, turbulent flights, long waits on a hot tarmac.

What I realize is that when things get hard it means we’re growing. We challenged ourselves to work harder, to work together, and to communicate better and faster than any company before us because that’s what this challenge asked of us. Now we’ve cut our teeth, and we are ready to revolutionize the transportation world. If people are impressed with what we accomplished in our infancy with this project, they’re going to be in awe of our next moves.

Hyperloop One Engineering Milestones

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  • Q. What is Virgin Hyperloop?

    We're a privately-held company on a mission to create fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities and eliminate the barriers of distance and time.

  • Q. Why are you building a hyperloop?

    There are too many people caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. We're building a system that will give back time and deliver the travel experience of the future.

  • Q. Why do we need hyperloop now?

    The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today, only much worse. 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.

  • Q. How much funding has Virgin Hyperloop received?

    To date, we have received over $400 million.

  • Q. Who are the key investors in Virgin Hyperloop?

    A major investor of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Additionally, we are backed by the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. For more on our investors, visit the company page.

  • Q. Does Virgin Hyperloop have any partners?

    Virgin Hyperloop is the only hyperloop company that has a strategic partnership with a mass transportation company, the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. Another key partner of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Other industry-leading partners include Spirit AeroSystems, KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.

  • Q. Is Elon Musk an investor or affiliated with Virgin Hyperloop?

    No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.

  • Q. How do you plan to scale up operations around the world?

    We aren't just building a hyperloop; we're building a network of public and private partners to scale an integrated supply chain ecosystem. Our business model is based on partnerships that create local jobs and opportunities for those who choose to invest in this technology. We are working at the highest level of governments around the globe to put in place commercial agreements to make hyperloop a reality.

  • Q. What is hyperloop?

    Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. It can travel at speeds approaching 700mph, connecting cities like metro stops - and it has zero direct emissions. The journeys can be booked on demand so there’s no wait time or delays.

  • Q. How does hyperloop work?

    With hyperloop, vehicles, called pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod floats along the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag. Watch a video explaining the concepts here.

  • Q. Has hyperloop technology been proven?

    Yes. We’ve successfully run hundreds of tests at our full-scale prototype in the Nevada desert. On November 8, 2020, the first passengers traveled safely on a hyperloop – making transportation history. This test demonstrated that we can safely put a person in a near-vacuum environment, and our entire safety approach was validated by an independent third party.

  • Q. How fast can hyperloop go?

    We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is about 3 times faster than high-speed rail and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles travel will vary based on the route and customer requirements.

  • Q. Why keep the tube at low-pressure and not at a perfect vacuum?

    A perfect vacuum would decrease the drag on the vehicle even more, but not significantly. We have already gotten rid of 99.9% of the air in the tube. Lower levels of vacuum than this are important if you are performing scientific experiments, but the cost would not be worthwhile.

  • Q. How is hyperloop different from high-speed trains?

    Hyperloop is an entirely new mode - think the best of trains, planes, and the metro. Hyperloop is on-demand, offering flexible travel schedules with no stops, no transfers, and no weather delays – all at speeds about 3 times faster than high-speed-rail and less cost. Hyperloop is highly efficient, with a smaller environmental impact than high-speed rail because the closed system can be tunneled below or elevated above ground, avoiding dangerous at-grade crossings. The VH system is 100% electric and can reach higher speeds than high-speed rail for less energy due to our proprietary electric motor and low-drag environment.

  • Q. Is hyperloop safe?

    Fast, effortless journeys go hand-in-hand with journeys where everything works reliably without interference, and where all passengers feel comfortable and safe. The Virgin Hyperloop is designed to be inherently safer than other modes, with multiple redundancies in place. Our system operates autonomously in an enclosed tube and is not susceptible to weather delays, accidents from at-grade crossings, human error, or power outages. Our proprietary high-speed switching architecture eliminates unsafe track configurations and moving trackside parts, a failure point of traditional rail with mechanical switches.

  • Q. How do you plan to get hyperloop certified?

    As new mode, we have to prove our safety case to regulators and work with them to develop a regulatory framework, so passengers can ride the hyperloop in years not decades. We are encouraged by the support we are seeing at the local and federal level around the world to support hyperloop certification based on the fundamentals of safe operating that are already standard practice. Our goal is to achieve safety certification by 2025. We are on track to meet this goal and have unveiled West Virginia as the home of the world’s first Hyperloop Certification Center (HCC). This announcement builds off of significant progress around the world on the regulatory front. In July 2020, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Elaine Chao and the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council unveiled the guidance document on a clear regulatory framework for hyperloop in the United States. In the EU, the European Commission (EC) has just released the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy and hyperloop is explicitly identified as a game-changing mobility technology. We are also working closely with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DGMOVE) and Shift2Rail to deliver the next wave of sustainable mobility through robust regulatory standards. In India, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India, Prof. Vijayraghavan, has set up an independent committee called the Consultative Group on Future of Transportation (CGFT) to explore the regulatory path for hyperloop. For more, visit our regulatory progress pages.

  • Q. What will it feel like to ride hyperloop?

    While flying through a tube at more than 1000km/h might seem like a thrill ride, the truth is we are able to mitigate any uncomfortable acceleration forces within our controlled environment. The journey will be so smooth, you could sip a coffee the whole time without spilling a single drop. Normal acceleration and deceleration of 0.20 Gs will feel similar to a train. As a comparison, flooring a typical sedan gives between 0.4-0.5 Gs and commercial airplanes see 0.3-0.5Gs depending on the plane and load.

  • Q. What happens if there's a sudden breach in the tube?

    Pods will continue to travel safely to the next portal even with a large breach. Our response to a breach would be to intentionally repressurize the tube with small valves placed along the route length while engaging pod brakes to safely bring all pods to rest before it is deemed safe to continue to the next portal. A sustained leak could impact performance (speed) but would not pose a safety issue due to vehicle and system architectural design choices. This assessment is based on a solid understanding and analysis of the complex vehicle load behaviors during such an event.

  • Q. Is hyperloop sustainable?

    Without a massive leap forward, pollution from the transportation industry is expected to almost double by 2050 - well above the carbon budget. By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VH system can reach airline speeds for 5-10x less energy (depends on route length) and can go faster than high-speed rail using less energy. In regions like the Middle East, we could power the system completely by solar panels which cover the tube. As fighting against climate change becomes an existential issue for cities across the globe, hyperloop will create a new, shared, electric mobility model for helping to permanently reform an industry with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions.

  • Q. How much energy does hyperloop use?

    We are designing Virgin Hyperloop to be more efficient than other modes of transportation. Modern jetliners use up to 10 times the energy we use per passenger-mile over the entire journey. We can cruise at 500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour. At peak speed, the VH system consumes approximately 75 watt hours per passenger kilometer (Wh/pax-km). To put this in perspective, the fastest conventional maglev train travels at about half our speed and consumes 33% more energy.

  • Q. Where will hyperloop get its power?

    Our system is 100% electric with zero direct emissions. We're energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route and support a transition to a renewable energy-powered future. In regions like the Middle East, we can completely power the system with solar panels which cover the tube.

  • Q. How much noise does hyperloop make?

    It’s similar those new electric vehicles that are so quiet they need to create noise to indicate movement. With hyperloop, we eliminate sources of mechanical noise, like wheels on track, and we actually have a sound barrier inherent in our tube design

  • Q. Can hyperloop be used for cargo?

    DP World Cargospeed is a global brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems operated by DP World and enabled by Virgin Hyperloop technology. These systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking for fast, sustainable, and efficient delivery of palletized cargo.

  • Q. What type of cargo would a hyperloop system transport?

    The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.

  • Q. How can hyperloop help transform logistics?

    With DP World Cargospeed, deliveries can be completed in hours versus days with greater reliability and fewer delays. It will expand freight transportation capacity by connecting with existing modes of road, rail, ports, and air transport, and will provide greater connectivity with manufacturing parks, economic zones, distribution centers, and regional urban centers. This can shrink inventory lead times, help reduce finished goods inventory, and cut required warehouse space and cost by 25%. DP World Cargospeed networks can also enable just-in-time, agile manufacturing practices.

  • Q. Will the first hyperloops be passenger or cargo systems?

    The Virgin Hyperloop is unique in that it doesn’t need to be passenger-only or cargo-only. We are designing a mixed-use system that fully utilizes system capacity while maximizing economic and social benefits. However, it is possible to run cargo commercial operations while certification and regulation are still ongoing for passenger use.

  • Q. When will hyperloop systems be ready for cargo and passengers?

    We are working with the most visionary governments around the world to make sure you can ride the hyperloop in years, not decades. Our goal is to have operational systems in the late 2020s. Our ability to meet that goal will depend on how fast the regulatory and statutory processes move.

  • Q. Where will the first hyperloop get built?

    We are working with visionary governments and partners around the world to make hyperloop a reality today. To learn more about our projects around the world, visit our progress page.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to build and operate?

    Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70% that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to ride?

    It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won't use it. We are looking to build something that will expand opportunities for the masses, so they can live in one city with their family and work in another. Currently, that kind of high-speed transport is not feasible for most people. The exact ticket price will vary for each route, but a recent study showed that riding a hyperloop in Missouri could cost less than the gas needed to drive.

  • Q. How are hyperloop routes selected?

    We are in the business of serving local needs, not the other way around. Public and private support is key. In some cases, we will respond to solicited bids with partners when we feel the technology matches the project’s objectives. In other cases, we will make an unsolicited bid for a project when we see that hyperloop could offer a unique solution to market needs.

  • Q. What is the process for getting a passenger route up and running?

    While the technology is different, the process for building a hyperloop is similar to that of building a highway, railway, or any other type of linear infrastructure. The first stage is project development. This phase includes feasibility studies, and then more detailed engineering reports and environmental impact studies. Once a project is approved to move forward, a consortium is formed to finance and deliver on the project.

  • Q. How much land does hyperloop require?

    Many infrastructure projects succeed or fail based on right-of-way issues. We are designing a system that requires only about half the right-of-way as high-speed rail and can more easily adapt to existing right-of-ways. At high speeds, the VH system has a 4.5 times tighter turn radius compared to high-speed rail and can climb grades that are 6 times steeper, reducing the disturbance at crossings. Portals will be purposely integrated into and support existing communities and landscapes. Low noise levels will expand opportunities to build hyperloops closer to the city center.

  • Q. With the focus on connecting cities, how will hyperloop support rural communities?

    Hyperloop also holds enormous promise for rural communities. Virgin Hyperloop systems can be built below or above ground, which means no one’s farm needs to be cut in half. Our system enables rural areas to retain residents, who can now have more access to urban job centers, educational opportunities, and health care facilities. Additionally, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas, leading to job growth and industrial clusters. After a system is built, there is the opportunity to add additional on and off-ramps, supporting a greater number of people along the route.

  • Q. How will hyperloop projects be financed?

    Transportation infrastructure has traditionally relied on extensive government funding. This is because the benefits of clean, safe, and efficient transportation are enjoyed by the entire community, not just the user buying a ticket. However, most existing mass transportation modes are unprofitable and hindered by existing infrastructure built in the past century or by legacy systems. We want to change that and are focused on public-private partnerships. By developing a new mode of transportation from scratch, we're able to leverage technological developments that have occurred in the last century, especially the IT revolution. We're able to keep maintenance costs low, energy efficiency high, and transport tens of thousands of passengers per hour. This keeps margins and accessibility high, contributing to more financially attractive returns than if the corridor was served by existing modes. These benefits aren’t just hypothetical. While this is an exceptional case due to high demand, a third-party evaluation found that our Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop Project could be funded 100% by private capital. In the U.S. we see enormous potential to attract investment from the private sector, leveraging public investments. Involving government stakeholders as well as potential private investors early in the project development process is critical.

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