Dhruv Mahajan, 21, has no interest in being just another computer engineering student who can make an app. Building a levitating pod that can travel at speeds up to 460 km per hour in a vacuumed tube? “It doesn’t get cooler than that,” says the third-year student of BITS, Goa. A lot more than cool cred rests on Mahajan and a team of undergraduate engineers, who have been racing to meet a deadline set by the Canadian-American inventor and businessman Elon Musk.
Their team, Hyperloop India, represents India in the Space X Hyperloop Pod Competition, organised by Musk, one of 24 teams to make it to the finals on August 25-27. The pod they have engineered in the three months since they set up base in Bengaluru will be unveiled on August 5 at the Indian Institute of Science. It aims to be a prototype of the future — the “fifth” mode of transport, called hyperloop.
Hyperloop is an idea floated by Musk in 2012. As conceived, in a hyperloop transport system, pods or containers would be propelled through vacuumed tubes at maximum speeds of 1,200 km per hour — you could travel from Mumbai to Chennai in 50 minutes. Hyperloop India’s prototype, the OrcaPod, 10 ft in length and 5 ft in width, can seat one person and will cost approximately Rs 1 crore to build and transport. “Aeroplanes can travel at higher speeds because there is a reduction of pressure at those heights. In hyperloop, we are bringing that reduction in pressure close to the ground,” says Mahajan, the software lead of Hyperloop India, who lived in Punjabi Bagh, Delhi, before he joined BITS, Goa.
Hyperloop India’s efforts are being enthusiastically touted as a moonshot project that — like Team Indus before them — might provide some serious bragging rights for India’s engineering culture. “The presence of the team in this contest signals that we have a competitive advantage. That our engineers are capable, and that this technology can be created and validated here,” says Anupama Gowda, co-founder of the Workbench Projects, which loaned its lab space under the Halasuru Metro Station to the Hyperloop India team in May this year.
Several players in the city have come on board as mentors or co-creators, including members of the Peenya Industries Association and the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation — many of them helping the project without a fee. Hyperloop has had global investors agog for a while now. The technology is being independently developed through crowd-sourcing contests and by private companies such as Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Representatives of both American companies were recently in India to lobby the government for land to build a hyperloop track. A committee under NITI Aayog is looking into the feasibility of such a project.
“It started out as a couple of students from BITS who wanted to meet and shake hands with Elon Musk. But it has become much bigger than that,” says Prithvi Sankar, a BITS student and business development lead of Hyperloop India. No matter the result in California, Sankar says they will continue to work on how to scale up the technology for Indian conditions. “If we succeed in California, the government has promised to give us land in Rajasthan to build a 5-km track,” he says.
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