Great man theories of science imagine innovation as something that happens mostly because of a few incredible people. This is true to the extent that it is difficult to imagine a classroom where relativity is taught, and Albert Einstein is not brought up as the mastermind behind the discovery.
In reality, many talented innovators often dedicated their time to make incremental discoveries. For a real-life example, look no further than Hyperloop technology, the means of transport championed by SpaceX and Tesla that recruits engineering teams all over the world, including the University of Edinburgh.
I had the pleasure of talking to Stella Antonogiannaki, research director at Edinburgh’s student Hyperloop team HYPED, about what drives students to take on a project of this scale, what Hyperloop’s future in Europe is and the challenges brought on by the ongoing pandemic.
Q. To start off, could you introduce me to HYPED and what you guys are all about?
We are the Edinburgh University Hyperloop society. A few years back Elon Musk took the concept of trains in a low pressured tube and made it into a slightly more concrete thing, and he called that the Hyperloop. The concept is you have an elevated pressurised tube and pods that carry, depending on the design, 20 to 50 passengers each […] and a maximum speed of about 1,000 km per hour. It’s not been implemented in full scale, but a lot of progress has been made [since 2013].
We are a student society with three major teams. We have our technical team, and they [participated] in the student competition […] where student teams would make a Hyperloop prototype and the best few teams would run their pods on the test track at SpaceX in California. It was a top speed competition so the team with the top speed would win. Our technical team has been a finalist in the competition every year we have participated.
We also have an outreach team […] to popularise the idea and the concept of Hyperloop and make it known to everyone […] and a research team, which is my department. We are currently working on a paper that would be a sort of Hyperloop proposal for the UK. Analysing the technical aspects […] and then figuring out some specifics for the UK so what route would be ideal and what the effect of it would be […]. We are taking more of a theoretical approach to full scale Hyperloop.
Q. It is not uncommon for engineers in UK universities to take part in large projects, but this feels more like uncharted territory. Isn’t it a bit daunting?
It can be difficult and stressful sometimes, especially with a concept like Hyperloop where there is no universal agreement on what exactly a Hyperloop system is. Each of the teams is designing their own thing and [the research team] is trying to figure out how this whole system would work full scale, but there is currently no single design for [it]. So you have to kind of figure things out and make decisions for yourself that you kind of have to make sure are as correct as you can make them without really having a manual […]. But it is still very exciting because it feels like we are helping somehow to make progress, especially since now HYPED is working with three other European teams on the European Hyperloop Week, which is an event we are planning that would be partially a competition for student teams […] and partially a conference. We are also partnering with some of the big companies that work on Hyperloop so it’s great to be able to help to make progress in this field.
Q. Is this happening in conjunction with SpaceX?
This is an individual project that is not connected in any real way to SpaceX other than that […] we were obviously inspired, but it is our own project. […] We are basically trying to bring it closer to home.
Q. Hyperloop does seem to get a lot of US centric coverage. Do you think Hyperloop has a future in Europe?
I think so, there are some Europe based companies, Hardt Hyperloop and Solaris, […] that are working on this concept and are doing things. For us to be able to bring everyone in one place together and participate in making this a bigger thing in Europe and not just in the US is very good. But there have been developments in other places in the world as well, […] Virgin Hyperloop are planning a route between Abu Dhabi and another nearby city. […] I think it’s a global development and bringing it closer to Europe is only going to help. [For] many of the student teams, going to California is not an easy thing, especially when you have to also transport a heavy [and] big pod. […] I think it would make things easier and bring more people to the cause.
Q. The lines between student groups and companies seem to be very blurred.
Yeah, there is a lot of work that goes into it. […] The more committed you are to it, the more I think you get out of it. Our philosophy as committee this year is that we don’t want it to feel like a job, and we want it to feel easy and fun […] but at the same time there is a lot of work that goes into it.
Q. Has it been difficult to keep everything moving through lockdown?
Yes, it’s been complicated. […] But we’re figuring it out and we’re making it work. I think that is the best you can hope for at this point. […] Obviously our technical team needs access to the labs at some point and they are working on getting [it]. But at the moment they are at the design process, so they don’t quite need the labs yet, but it would be helpful to have them soon. Our outreach team was planning on working on an online course which is still going ahead. In fact, we have a live lecture on the 25th of November with the Centre for Open Learning. […] Working online is not pleasant, but it is happening.
Q. What would Hyperloop look like in the UK?
What we are planning for our paper […] is a route that includes as many as the big cities as we can, but you do need to take into account that when you want to reach such a high top speed […] it takes time to reach that speed if you don’t want to subject the passenger to really big accelerations. It takes some time to reach the max speed, so having distances that are very close together like Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t make much sense. […] It is better for slightly bigger distances, I know London to Edinburgh is a good example but also some intermediate stops like Manchester. Maybe not a trip London to Athens, because that is a bit too much. It is a possibility some people are considering, having a Hyperloop network for Europe […] but that is quite a complicated thing to achieve and [a] more linear approach is better I think.
You can find HYPED on Facebook for more information on their project and opportunities to take part in events