Is hyperloop a competitor to aviation? The jury is out

The hyperloop hype shows no signs of abating and things seem to be developing fast. Experts are divided on whether the aerospace industry should be worried.

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.

There are no hyperloop systems in operation yet, but a number of companies are working on it and tests and trials are ongoing globally. What does this mean for the aviation industry?

Here comes hyperloop

PriestmanGoode specialises in transportation design. It works in the aviation sector with companies such as Airbus and Embraer, as well as a number of airlines. The company is also designing capsules for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, including the exterior, aerodynamics, interior and boarding experience. 

Paul Priestman, PriestmanGoode, says: “Hyperloop technically is an airplane because it doesn't touch anything. It's a magnetic levitation vehicle. The interesting thing about Hyperloop is that it won't be susceptible to weather. Obviously if there's bad weather then airplanes can't take off and trains get disrupted, but hyperloop's in a sealed system.

He adds: “I think it is a competitor to aviation but it's got some development to do yet. I think everybody should learn from different industries. I wouldn't say that it's the end of aviation at all, I mean, there's oceans and things like that, but…let's see.”

Faster and greener?

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”.  

Not so fast

Earlier this year, 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.”

ADS Chief Executive, Paul Everitt, was of a similar mind, telling us: “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.”

A novel vision

However, Hugh Hunt, Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration, University of Cambridge, warns aerospace shouldn’t get complacent: “The days of aircraft and ships are numbered, unless we can find a way to power them with electricity or hydrogen fuel,” he says. 

“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: “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.

New opportunities

Another side to the argument is that hyperloop could also offer new opportunities for the aerospace industry. The expertise aerospace manufacturers already have building planes can easily be applied to creating Hyperloop vehicles. Engineers from Nasa, SpaceX and Boeing are reportedly among those working on hyperloop projects. Airbus and Italdesign unveiled Pop.Up, a concept for a modular zero-emission vehicle system compatible with Hyperloop, at last year’s Geneva Auto Show. And Airbus also sponsored WARR Hyperloop, a team of students from the Technical University of Munich, whose pod won the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition in 2017.

Read our feature for more views on what hyperloop means for aviation, if anything.

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