Dubai to Abu Dhabi in just 12 minutes! Most people viewed this headline with skepticism when it was first announced. But Virgin Hyperloop One, the company behind this revolutionary transport system, has made much progress on the road to building this ambitious system.
“We’re at the phase now of commercializing the system,” said Amjad Almkhalalati, director of operations – UAE, Virgin Hyperloop One, in an interview with Trimble Solutions Middle East “It’s very promising, and will happen sooner than you expect,” he stated while speaking on the sidelines of recent Construction Summit Middle East in Dubai.
“The RTA in Dubai was one of the first partners that worked with us on the project two years ago. We’ve completed a feasibility study with them and showcased the Pod at Dubai City Walk in February. It gave a feel of what it will be like being in a hyperloop. We’re continuing discussions with the RTA on the next steps,” he said.
In a further boost to the company, it has signed a framework agreement for a fast-track project in India between Mumbai and Pune.
Explaining the technology and how it works, Almkhalalati said: “It will be a culture shock in that it’s very different to travel long distances at high speeds and on-demand.”
Excerpts from the interview done in connection with the Construction Summit – Powered by Trimble:
What’s your role with Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO)?
I’m the director of operations for the UAE, and also support projects in the region, such as India, where we signed a historic framework agreement back in February. Our chairman, Sir Richard Branson, was in India to sign the agreement in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What’s the progress on the Hyperloop project so far?
The commercialization of the VHO product is now moving forward, and we are getting worldwide government support. The RTA in Dubai was one of the first partners that worked with us on the project two years ago. We’ve completed a feasibility study with them. We continued working with them and showcased the Pod at Dubai City Walk in February. It was built here in Dubai and generated a lot of interest as the first Pod in the world that Hyperloop has shown to the public. It gave a feel of what it will be like being in a hyperloop. We’re continuing discussions with the RTA on the next steps.
Tell us more about your India project
That was a big step forward for us. We were the first company to actually sign a framework agreement with the intention of building a Hyperloop. The project is progressing. We have just completed the detailed feasibility study and concept design. We’re now moving onto the next step, which is further design and preliminary engineering.
It’s a fast-track project. Initially, we will build a demonstration track in order to obtain safety and regulatory approvals. This track will be part of the final route between Mumbai and Pune. The total distance between the two cities is about 140 km. It will be completed in the mid-2020s.
Our full-scale demonstration track in India will help us progress, as we can start getting certified and begin our testing and commissioning. It is unlike what we have in Nevada, which is only 500 m. This is a longer demonstration track. It’s a couple of years away yet, but that’s really not a long time.
In parallel, you’re developing a Hyperloop for cargo. I suppose this should realistically be easier to obtain safety approvals for?
Yes, it is always more difficult when there are passengers than it is with cargo. In April, we introduced our cargo brand, DP World Cargospeed. This is something very important to us. DP World has been a big supporter of our technology from the beginning. This is a slightly different technology, with possibly smaller tubes. We’re not looking at transporting larger containers, as it’s more for palletized products. We are working closely with DP World to move that forward into commercialization.
Who is the ideal customer for the cargo aspect, someone like DHL?
Are there any special conditions you need to consider due to the desert heat?
We’ve built our test track in Nevada, a desert environment where the temperature fluctuates from zero to about 43°C. Over the past two years since we’ve built DevLoop, where we’ve experienced daily movements due to the contraction and expansion of the steel tube. So, the temperatures in Nevada are not that much different from what we might expect in Dubai. This gives us a feel of how the system would react here. We have designed proprietary structural systems into the DevLoop columns to take this into account. We have steel tubes, and monitor the tube movements within our design process.
How will you be loading passengers, supposedly thousands of people per hour?
Our system is fully autonomous and on-demand. It won’t run like trains or airplanes at specific times only. We’re working on a seamless passenger experience; we recently showcased a demo app allowing you to request a Hyperloop Pod in the same way as an Uber, and it will tell you to go to a specific gate. Each Pod accommodates eight to 16 passengers, depending on the class of travel, and that differs from country to country. The Dubai Pod we showcased had a capacity of 23 passengers in Gold and Economy class cabins. As it’s on-demand, we can transport roughly 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction along the 440-km route. Loading and unloading passengers will be done via multiple platforms using the app and software to direct you to the correct platform. Our capacity in terms of passengers and freight is therefore flexible.
You get into the Pod, and it enters the tube where an airlock functions as the interface between the passenger platform and the Hyperloop tube, which is in a vacuum. It will be a culture shock in that it’s very different to travel long distances at high speeds and on-demand.
There are other companies attempting to do this as well, and some are ahead of the others. Do you see this as a potential competition down the line?
Competitors are good. We all want to create a better future for everyone, in terms of the way people think, live, and commute. You can work in one city, and live in another. Instead of reaching Dubai in 90 minutes, it will only take me 12. However, a lot of our products are proprietary. Our levitation, propulsion, and control systems are all protected IP. We’re the only company that has built a test track and tested the technology.
We’re at the phase now of commercializing the system. Things happened very quickly last year, with testing the gate valve, and the levitation, propulsion, and braking system. Now we’re building a network of public and private partners to help speed up the process of commercializing the product to move forward with our technology, and obtain the necessary government backing.
You presented a paper at the Construction Summit on September 18 about adopting new technologies and methodologies for construction…
I talked about how new technology is encouraging innovation in the construction process in terms of building the Hyperloop in particular, which means adopting new methodologies of construction in line with the theme of ‘Digital Transformation Powering Constructability’.
Are you already working with contractors and looking at who will deliver the system? Do you think that the expertise is there in the market to achieve this?
There are different contracting packages. It is similar to any large infrastructure project, with columns, utilities, roadworks, earthworks and the steel tubes themselves, even though the specifications are different, as it has to be vacuum-sealed. All fall under normal civil contracting procedures. We’re commencing with construction in India in the next couple of months. With DevLoop most of it was carried out in-house, but now that we’re looking to commercialize, we are receiving support from global partners.
Will you be in India a lot to put this track in place?
Definitely. It’s a very fast-track project. We’re receiving great support from the Indian government. I was very surprised when we started working on this some months ago and started the feasibility study in March. Over the past six months, it’s been very hectic. And it’s going to get even more hectic going forward. We are working with our partners in India, with Systra supporting us on the civil consultancy aspects, Turner & Townsend on cost consulting, and KPMG on the economic and financial modeling.
My understanding is that Dubai and India are the two places that are the furthest ahead in making progress?
Definitely, although we have also got a lot going on around the world. We are working in the US as well, where we’ve secured the number of projects and we’re included in the environmental impact studies. We just recently announced a deal in Spain to open an advanced R&D center in Andalusia, with support from the government, and which will open the end of next year. It will all assist us with the sub-component testing process of commercializing our product.
Is Sir Richard Branson actively involved in VHO?
When you hear him speak about Hyperloop, you get even more excited.
He’s very actively involved. I met him at the DP World Cargospeed event that he attended. When you hear him speak about Hyperloop, you get even more excited. He loves the idea, and he’s really supporting us.
Since Virgin came on board, we’ve benefited a lot from their brand recognition and operational expertise in trains, metros, airlines, and of course aerospace with Virgin Galactic.
So, from an operational perspective where we have needed help, they have been great.
Is there any collaboration between universities or getting people here in the UAE on board to work on the project?
Yes, not only here in the UAE, but around the world. We get a lot of students who come and support us for a couple of months as part of their internship program. That’s good because it helps students understand our technology. Sometimes you get Ph.D. students to come and conduct research and development. We get Master’s students writing their theses on how Hyperloop is helping the ecosystem. It’s not only about building a high-speed connection between two cities; it’s also about the entire ecosystem that this creates, from local manufacturing to job creation, and creating communities that can work together at such great distances apart. People commute for three hours between Mumbai and Pune, a journey of 140 km on dangerous roads, especially during the heavy rains in the monsoon season. When you create a Hyperloop linking these two communities in a mere 19-minute journey, it will change how people think and live. You’ve got less reduced road maintenance, fewer parking requirements, and it is intermodal. This means you can connect it to another mode of transport if need be.
What do you say to the skeptics?
What I say is, it’s real. It’s happening. I’ve seen it in DevLoop. I was a skeptic before, but working with this excellent group of engineers, and getting the right support from our investors and partners, I have changed my tune. It’s very promising, and it will happen sooner than you expect. Definitely sooner than you expect. Keep an eye on what’s happening in the region. There will be big announcements very soon.