Despite advances in high-speed rail services, air travel remains the fastest way to travel. Hyperloop advocates, however, are working hard to catch up and the technology could bring other competitive benefits too. What does it mean for aerospace?

Hyperloop is the brainchild of Elon Musk, who first put the idea forward in 2013. The “fifth mode of transport”, as he sees it, would see ‘pods’, suspended by magnetic levitation and propelled using a linear electric motor, travel at over 1,000 kph through near-vacuum tubes. The straight tubes can be put underground, or stationed above held up by columns.

In theory, a hyperloop system could reduce a 12-hour train journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco to just 35 minutes, or replace the popular flight for some travellers.

Elsewhere, Dubai has agreed to conduct a feasibility study for a hyperloop link with Abu Dhabi. Hyperloop One published the first economic study of a full scale hyperloop system between Helsinki and Stockholm. The company also recently released what it sees as the 10 strongest potential Hyperloop routes in the world.

“We expect to be able to be inside the first Hyperloop within the next three years,” Dirk Ahlborn, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) co-founder, said in a keynote address at the Future Travel Experience (FTE) Global conference in Las Vegas last year. “We’ve started construction of the first passenger capsule.”

Get real

A number of companies are vying to launch hyperloop transportation services, including Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, TransPod, SpaceX, DGWHyperloop, Arrivo, Hardt Global Mobility, Hyper Chariot, and Zeleros.

While bullish about expected results, the companies are typically cagey about specifics. Many onlookers remain sceptical about whether the technology is really feasible. Will the G Force be comfortable and safe for passengers? What about the fact that most places don’t have the land available for the straight tubes and flat surfaces required? How will the systems cope with even small seismic activity? Can a hyperloop be constructed at a price point that makes travel affordable for passengers?

Scepticism is healthy but the sheer amount of competition and private investment in the field suggests many in the know think it’s viable.

The upshot for aerospace?

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO, Dirk Ahlborn, has called hyperloop “an airplane inside a tube.”

He told CNBC: “It works the same way, an airplane goes into high altitudes because it consumes less energy the higher it goes. It can go much faster with less energy and that’s the same concept inside the hyperloop.”

He is also quoted as saying the tech is “ten times safer than an airplane”.

This, of course, is yet to be proven.

You don’t hear the aerospace industry talk about hyperloop too much. Many are perhaps casually waiting to see how things pan out, while focusing on other more pressing priorities for now. Others don’t think it’s much to worry about.

Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst, StrategicAero Research, told FINN: “Given the proximity between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which has been one of the mooted connection points for the hyperloop project, in this instance it represents more of a threat to traditional surface-based transportation systems than it does aviation. That said, the inherent risk of infrastructure sabotage over greater distances is what makes hyperloop extremely vulnerable. Air travel avoids this risk and therefore I don’t see hyperloop doing any real or sustainable ‘competitive damage’ to the aerospace or aviation sectors.”

He added: “I don’t think aerospace companies need to worry. Perhaps they can worry when London and New York are linked. However, until that time the infrastructure costs for a journey of that scale means not only will it be hideously expensive, any interference or system fault would render it useless. That’s why in my mind, such loop systems will not work over extremely long distances. In fact, I doubt they’ll work on anything over 200-300 miles because of prohibitive costs associated with maintaining a single line. And even if it could be 100% failsafe and sabotage free, it still can’t offer multiple frequencies or high volume transit movement in the way airplanes can.”

ADS Chief Executive, Paul Everitt, is of a similar mind.

He commented: “New technologies can pose both threats and opportunities, but it is difficult to speculate on what impact hyperloop could have as there is so much that we don’t yet know about it.

“Aviation is statistically the safest form of transport ever developed and benefits from established production facilities, regulatory systems and physical infrastructure. Hyperloop or other proposed new forms of transport technology would need all of this to be established afresh, and could be comparatively expensive in terms of the land required to create a new route.”

Everitt concluded: “What we do know is that where new high speed rail routes have been created – such as the Eurostar link from London to Paris – the market for aviation has changed, but not been displaced. If it could be successfully developed, new technology like hyperloop appears likely to have a greater impact on road travel than aviation.”

In denial?

Others believe that the aerospace industry will ignore hyperloop at its peril.

Hugh Hunt, Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration, University of Cambridge, said: “The days of aircraft and ships are numbered, unless we can find a way to power them with electricity or hydrogen fuel. Hyperloop offers a novel vision of the future of long-distance travel – one that might just catch on.”

Hunt told FINN that the aerospace sector is “in a state of denial about climate change” and this could be its downfall.

He commented: “Aviation cannot keep on growing. If by 2050 we’re not burning fossil fuels, then where does aviation get its fuel from? The aviation sector says it will use biofuels but everybody is saying that. There’s only so much biofuel to go around. Aviation is not going to get it all. I think aviation will decline.”

And hyperloop could be waiting in the wings to pick up the slack. Hunt says the challenges for the futuristic technology are admittedly big, but not insurmountable.

“That’s the exciting thing about it,” he said.

Put up or shut up

Speaking at Smart City Expo World Congress last last year, HTT’s Alhlborn said: “We started four years ago; it was an idea. Today I’m sure most of you have heard of the hyperloop — it’s not an idea anymore; it’s going to be happening. I believe that if someone tells me that you can’t do something, it just means they haven’t figured it out, it doesn’t mean that we can’t do it.”

If any industry knows about making the ‘impossible’ a reality, it’s aerospace. Hunt commented: “This hyperloop thing may just turn out to be ridiculous but when the Wright brothers started flying, people thought that aircrafts were ridiculous too.”

And look how that turned out. While hyperloop may not be aviation’s biggest headache at the moment, dismissing it out of hand could be a costly mistake. For now, watch this space – just don’t blink or you might miss it.

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