A team of Australian university students is playing a major role in revolutionising the future of transportation technologies. They are working on what futurist entrepreneur Elon Musk describes as a ‘cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table’ – the Hyperloop.
The group, from RMIT University in Melbourne, is led by engineering graduates Matthew O’Callaghan and Zachary McClelland, and is one of 30 finalists from 1,700 entrants from around the world working on a Hyperloop pod design.
Musk, known for his roles with PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, was inspired to explore the viability of Hyperloop technologies after being frustrated by the lack of cost-effective high-speed trains in the US.
SpaceX – Musk’s rocket and spacecraft company – subsequently sponsored a global Hyperloop competition to design a transportation pod that will travel at speeds of up to 1,200 kilometres per hour levitated on a cushion of air or magnets inside a vacuum-sealed tube.
It is envisaged the pods will eventually carry goods and people across large distances in a short time, providing greater efficiency than cars, trains and aircraft. Imagine, advocates say, ordering a pizza from your favourite restaurant 600 kilometres away and having it delivered to your home in 30 minutes.
“What this can provide for the world is just amazing,” says 24-year-old O’Callaghan, who was inspired to enter the competition after growing up in the regional Australian city of Mildura.
“It could transfer goods, and connect cities, particularly in Australia where they are so far apart. All of our cities can become suburbs. You could live in Melbourne and work in Sydney and commute every day.”
Hyperloop poised to become reality
O’Callaghan’s and McClelland’s project, named VicHyper, is supported by RMIT University and several Australian corporate partners. It is focused on building a braking system for the high-speed pods – a crucial part of the vehicle’s design.
The team travelled to Texas for the first in-person judging event in January 2016 where 115 designs, narrowed down from the almost 2,000 initial entries, were in competition. VicHyper returned to Melbourne with the ‘Braking Subsystem Technical Excellence Award’ and advanced to the next round.
In late January 2017, the VicHyper team will return to the US as the only team from the Southern Hemisphere and compete in tests at the SpaceX track facility in Los Angeles. Other teams represent universities from the US, Canada, Spain, Germany, India and Japan, as well as a non-student team formed by members of the social media platform Reddit.
The VicHyper pod resembles a futuristic bobsleigh: 3.6 metres long, 1.3 metres wide and approximately one-metre high. It will demonstrate an electromagnetic braking system and friction brakes for low speeds or emergencies.
As O’Callaghan explains, the system is more complicated than it sounds – or appears on paper. The team has spent several sleepless nights trying to bridge the gap between theory and reality.
Motivated by innovation and change for good
O’Callaghan graduated from RMIT with an aerospace engineering degree keen to pursue a career where he could “push the boundaries of innovation.
“I wanted to put my expertise into something that could benefit the greater community,” he says. “There is all this amazing technology out there we can use in amazing ways. I really want to help make a change.”
O’Callaghan read a white paper written by Musk about Hyperloop technology and was hooked by the concept. When SpaceX announced its competition for students, O’Callaghan knew this was an opportunity he couldn’t miss.
He coaxed friend Zachary McClelland to join the him on the project and, with backing from RMIT, their paper sketches became reality.
“RMIT has been a huge support, providing access to technical staff and facilities, financial help, workspaces, logistics and transportation,” O’Callaghan says. “Without RMIT we wouldn’t be heading to the US.
“I think they liked that it wasn’t just two guys with an idea on a piece of paper. We knew it was important to win people over and show them we really were going to do this. It is not just a pipe dream – pardon the pun.”
The Hyperloop concept has evolved beyond plans and may soon be reality. One company investing in Hyperloop technology has a development partnership with the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and another has announced an agreement to explore constructing a link between Bratislava in Slovakia and Prague in the Czech Republic.
Diverse team brings best talent
VicHyper is now a 30-strong team boasting electrical and mechanical aerospace engineers, industrial designers, graphic and website designers, and a media and public relations team. All team members are graduates or current students at RMIT.
“We really pushed to have a good gender, racial, skill and cultural balance on the team,” O’Callaghan says. “If you have a diverse environment, everybody has something unique to bring to the table.”
It’s not yet known what will happen after the competition. According to O’Callaghan, success can be measured in many ways. Primarily, he’s satisfied that Australian ideas have been recognised in a global competition where the majority of talent is from the US and Europe.
“We wanted to show that Australia is at the forefront of this kind of technology – and that our team is straight out of university,” O’Callaghan says.
“Nobody really knows what happens next but I am looking forward to what the outcome is. I definitely want to continue working on this technology and bring it to fruition.”