Team Avishkar represented IIT Madras and India at the International Hyperloop Pod Competition organized by SpaceX. The team is undertaking ingenious research and development to build the first ever self propelled, completely autonomous and fastest Hyperloop Pod from India – thus helping humanity move one-step closer to achieving an incredible new mode of transport. Their design for the Hyperloop Pod is among one of the top 22 designs shortlisted by SpaceX, out of more than 1600 designs submitted from all around the globe. In this endeavour, they are the only team selected from all of Asia!

They aim to transcend current systems for public transportation.

T5E catches up with Ankit Kukadia, Vinit Sharma (the 2 Co Heads) and Aditya Ranade (the Design and Modelling Head), who are 3 members of a 59 member team titled ‘Avishkar’.

What was the spark of ingenuity that led you to work on designing something as revolutionary as the Hyperloop ?

 

It all started when SpaceX announced its global competition for creating the Hyperloop pod. In general, the team felt that time was of the essence and that a large part of our daily lives cannot be spent on travelling. Given the limited number of transportation modes, there is simply no way to cut down on commute time. The only way forward – to find an alternative that can drastically reduce commute time – would definitely involve increasing speed. The idea of working on the Hyperloop was born from this thought process.

The celebrated tech inventor Elon Musk’s revolutionary proposal was all over the news back in 2017 and his idea seemed to align with the interest of the team and that was the genesis of ‘Team Avishkar’. They had set goals common to ours and the idea of the Hyperloop was befitting all the features that would solve our current travelling modes’ delays. The team thought “Why not ?” and jumped head first into the challenge of working on this project.

Curiosity drives innovation and the very fact that nobody in the world had a working model of the Hyperloop piqued their interest. The team was thus founded with the sole aim of competing in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. At the beginning, the team did not envision itself to receive such a level of exposure. They mainly worked on ideating about the Hyperloop Pod and the design details needed for the SpaceX competition – all within the confines of the CFI building. However, once they climbed the ladder higher-up in the competition, nothing stopped them from battling some of the best minds around the globe.

With a first setback in 2017 in which the team qualified for the top 52 amongst a global participation from 1600+ teams, but failed to qualify for the top 22 , the team’s determination and dedication rose manifold in the following year and their hard work bore fruit the second time when they were deemed the first Asian team to have qualified for the final round of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition as one of the top 22 teams from all over the world. Since then, they have competed in various competitions and exhibitions in India and abroad, such as the FISITA World Automotive Congress, the Energy Storage India Conference, Army Day and ofcourse, the CFI Open House.

Being the only Indian team to clear the round twice and the first in Asia to qualify for the top 22, what would you attribute your success to, besides a dedicated team?

The team believes that their single-minded determination and dedication towards achieving that one fixed goal of winning the SpaceX competition drove them to achieve perfection. Vinit says that the work culture is such that they give everybody the flexibility of working only on fixed days for a limited time adding that a week before quiz week, they stop all operations. This operational flexibility which they provide is what motivates the younger students to contribute to the team constantly with relevant and new ideas.

Ankit believes that every team member’s contribution is equally important, as it all contributes to the team’s success. Along with the indomitable work culture, he says that they received support from the alumni in a timely manner. The Alumni Reunions and the CFI Open House were avenues that facilitated that.

He adds that opportunities to participate in international exhibitions coupled with the contacts of alumni have strengthened their networking base throughout the world.

Vinit opines that funding is the backbone of making any idea a great success and industry sponsorships have helped them immensely for developing their final pod. He also attributes their success to the unconventional rationale behind their technology that seems to intrigue their network base.

No team is complete without the backing of a mentor and the same is the case with Team Avishkar. They attribute their success to the continuous guidance received from three professors Prof. Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Coordinator at NCCRD which is one of the largest combustion centres in the world, Prof. T. M. Muruganandam: also from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Prof. Boby George from the Department of Electrical Engineering. Ankit is extremely grateful for the fact that these professors take time off their research interests and dedicate time to help them.

 

He adds that once, Prof. Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy and Prof. T. M. Muruganandam sat with them for almost 8 hours-2 reviews, each lasting 4 hours, just for their design.


What was the background work required to be done before submitting your proposal to the SpaceX Hyperloop competition?

Speaking about the challenges that they faced in the beginning, Aditya Ranade says “The background work needed to register for the competition was immense. Initially we team had no idea about what exactly was needed, or how to proceed forward. We were essentially wandering in the dark. Initially it was just us trying out a bunch of random ideas. A bit later, perhaps 10 days, we finalised the design and began working on it. Registering for the competition in itself wasn’t a very hard task. We just had to fill an ‘Intent to Compete’ form on the SpaceX website and that was it. With that, we were participants of the competition. However, the kind of research needed in later stages such as the feasibility checks and the panel interviews was enormous.”

Vinit added that an Indian team had previously qualified for this competition and the team was aware to a certain degree about the existence of this competition, but the exact details were still vague. Soon after registering, they starting scouting for the existing technological solutions that would help them to qualify. This entailed a thorough search of various Wikipedia pages, scores of webpages, the previous teams who participated and their technological solutions. That was how they stumbled upon the idea of Linear Induction Motor and Levitation. On a quest to research further, they came to know about the wheel drive alongside other concepts.

Finally, after having cleared the preliminary design round and the final design round, they are now into the final part of the competition. Not unlike the journey thus far, the path ahead was peppered with challenges too.

Vinit and Ankit add, ‘For the combination of our ideas for this particular design of the Hyperloop, no research papers are available for the technology we’re proposing. In fact, we were the ones developing this technology through active discussions with professors and thorough literature surveys which involved reading a lot of relevant books and researching about projects done around the world’

Initially, they had an array of ‘random’ ideas which they kept sampling from to make different design concoctions before finalising on their model of the Hyperloop pod.

 

Vinit jokingly elaborates on some of their random ideas ‘whether to go for a normal wheel or a combination of a Linear Induction Motor (LIM) and wheels or to choose a cold propulsion gas model which moves the pod like a balloon propeller, or an electric propulsion drive… Or whether we should use an LIM and wheel drive or to initially use a wheel drive and once the desired speed is achieved – levitate the pod and propel it using the LIM, contactless braking through eddy currents, deploying a parachute to cut down speed and so many more such ideas…

 

Surely a project of this scale requires a big team working seamlessly. While so many teams in insti have found it difficult to crack the code for ultimate team productivity, we ask Team Avishkar about how they manage to function smoothly, despite being such a large team of a diverse set of students.

What is your team hierarchy like? How important is the contribution of the first years compared to the doctoral students and how do they interact amongst each other so seamlessly? One wouldn’t think that a UG-PG collaboration could be so smooth.

Vinit answers, ‘The general team structure is composed of 1 Team Head and 2 Co-Heads with 3 Group Leads for the 7 subsystems.

The current Team Head is Suyash Singh, a final year M.Tech student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, and 2 co-heads- Ankit Kukadia (ME M.Tech.) and Vinit Sharma (AE M.Tech.), followed by 3 group leads – Denil (Machine Design MS), Nitin (ME DD) and Avinash (Machine Design MS), who manage 3 groups which are split into 7 subsystems. Each subsystem has 1 head.

The 7 different subsystems in the team are: Braking, Control System, Power System, Propulsion, Stability, Structures and Business. Each subsystem consists of approximately 3 members.

 

The academic diversity of students in the team comprises of 1 MS, 1PhD, 4 M.Tech students and the are rest undergraduates divided between Dual Degree and B.Tech. Within the team, there are 34 freshmen!

 

Department-wise, we have: 5 students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, 2 students from the Department of Civil Engineering, a vast majority of 25 students from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, 8 students from the Department of Electrical Engineering, 6 students from the Department of Engineering Design, 2 students from the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and 5 students from the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. ’

Vinit adds that the team interacts through regular meets in the evenings mostly from 6pm and that these meetings go on till dinner. They meet additionally whenever time permits, such as weekends or long holidays and most definitely have night-outs prior to deadlines. Seniors and juniors together work on the chassis, brake systems and other components that are present inside the CFI building, thereby breaking the ice and making such a collaboration seamless. The pod is yet to arrive as it is currently being manufactured but the nitty gritty of its details is worked out by both the seniors and juniors alike. The entire effort is very collaborative.

We caught up with a part of Team Avishkar at one of these work sessions at CFI too!

All of them unanimously agree that a smaller dedicated team adds value to their team. They feel that they have an optimal team strength comprising of juniors and seniors and all of them have the necessary zeal to work in the team.

Moving on to the science and engineering behind the pod itself, we ask

How exactly does the design idea of the levitating pod work?

The levitating pod is essentially the main ‘carrier’ inside the vacuum tube. It has a carrying capacity of about 28-40 people and weighs approximately 5 tonnes. The pod that we have designed is specifically for the SpaceX competition and weighs about 110kg. It is designed keeping in mind the 1-mile long vacuum tube provided by SpaceX to implement their idea in real life (without passengers). We have come out with two proposals to drastically increase the speed of the pod: the use of Levitation and the Linear Induction Motor (LIM). Both the ideas are presently in our research and testing phase, and the pod does not employ them currently.

The pod is initially propelled by a Linear Induction Motor (LIM) on support wheels. Once sufficient speed has been reached, the wheels will lose contact with the track and the pod starts levitating. Even after the wheels have lost contact, the LIM will keep propelling it.

Explaining what a Linear Induction Motor is, Ankit says ‘it is essentially a rotary motor that has been cut to make it of infinite diameter, thereby inducing linear motion.’

In the Hyperloop pod’s case, Aditya says that ‘the stator is the one which moves and the rotor would be the track, contrary to that of an AC motor where a stator (iron core) is stationary and a rotor moves.’

The braking system of the Hyperloop involves orienting an additional set of magnets in a particular direction to induce eddy currents to stop the pod.

Currently the fastest form of commercial land transport, Maglev, is a system of train transportation that uses two sets of magnets, one set to repel and push the train up off the track, then another set to move the ‘floating train’ ahead at great speed. The origins of Maglev date back to the early 1900s and today, several countries including the likes of China, Japan and South Korea have deployed this train successfully in various cities (Shanghai, Incheon, Daejeon etc) and several other countries such as Australia, Italy, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada have proposed to build such trains.

Achieving speeds that were hitherto not possible through normal road and rail transport systems, we ask:

How is the Hyperloop different from Maglev?

Magnetic Levitation is a suspension system that operates in open air. Maglev manages to overcome one of the two kinds of resistances that a moving vehicle experiences: namely, the mechanical drag in the form of friction as it levitates and moves forward. However, it still falls prey to the clutches of aerodynamic drag or air resistance. It has active magnets in the form of electromagnets that are magnetized as and when required, by passing electricity. As a result, it needs an additional continuous supply of electricity.

On the other hand, the Hyperloop employs a dedicated vacuum tube that reduces the air resistance significantly, along with reducing friction by utilizing strong permanent magnets under the pod and employing Halbach arrays of permanent magnets that induce strong repulsive currents in the aluminium track present inside the tube.

This enables it to levitate above the track, kind of like a hockey puck on an air hockey table.

With speeds ranging above 1200 km/hr, the Hyperloop is about 4 times the speed of the ordinary maglev train.

 

While these ideas inspire awe among the engineering and ‘tech’ communities, cynics believe that the Hyperloop as a mode of public transport – particularly in India – is a futuristic pipe dream. We ask the team about their views on the same:

What do you think about the feasibility, such as the additional space and infrastructure required to build a whole new mode of transport in a country like India?

Citing the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by the Maharashtra Government with Virgin Hyperloop to create the infrastructure required to build the Hyperloop connecting the stretch from Mumbai to Pune, the team members explain how the company plans on going about building it.

Ankit says, ‘Vacuum pumps will be placed at regular intervals, maybe every 50m or 100m to maintain low pressure and a giant vacuum pump will be present at the beginning of the vacuum tube. They would need to suck out the bulk of air inside the tube initially, but later on, need minimal power to keep the pumps running.’

‘The subsequent operating cost will be pretty low, but the initial capital cost will be pretty high’ says Vinit, continuing that, ‘the Hyperloop pods require very little electricity and work completely based on the directional orientation of the magnet whenever it is required to brake.’

When asked how the Hyperloop will be implemented in Indian cities given the vast urbanisation, massive deforestation amidst already crowded modes of transportation like the metro, suburban railways and existing roads, Vinit says

‘Both an over-the-ground or under-the-ground form of implementation can be adopted for the Hyperloop tube. This particular problem can be solved if the tube is lodged underground in tunnels as minimal trees have to be cut.’

Ankit opines that ‘Constructing the Hyperloop tube will be like building bridges and flyovers in cities where construction is an ongoing process. It won’t harm the tree cover or urbanised spaces as it will be similar to erecting pillars on roads. They will not take up the whole road space as they can be constructed in between the roads.’

Vinit adds – ‘A parallel transport system can be considered by taking the Hyperloop tube high above the ground resulting in lesser space constraint with minimal axing of trees.’

Ankit opines that this is a feeling that develops whenever any new technology enters the market: people question its operational complexities and are hesitant at first. But in the years to come, technological solutions will become available and the boundary separating it as being called an idea and reality will simply vanish.

Convincing the cynics about their ideas to revolutionize public transport is only a piece of a bigger pie of challenges they face in this endeavour. We speak to them about the status of more imminent challenges – particularly funding:

How do you manage to procure funding, especially given the fact that it is a high investment project? How, if at all, is SpaceX helping you throughout the competition?

Vinit says, ‘Every time we work on a new idea or make progress, we constantly update it on our profile and ensure that the industry and their network becomes aware of it. This incentivises companies to become interested in their work. A conventional technological idea may not be of much interest to an industry, but a hitherto unheard-of technology always interests them’.

‘We are on a ventilator currently as the process of obtaining funds is a forever ongoing process’ adds Ankit jovially.

The estimated budget proposed is about Rs 1.2 crore which includes the logistic cost of shipping the pod from the Chennai Port, as well as the flight charges and hotel accommodations for the team of 20 who will be going to California to represent the team.

So far, the team has managed to raise about 25% of its estimated budget through various channels such as from the alumni during Alumni Reunions, Industry Sponsors and the CFI proposed grant for the team.

On a serious note, Ankit adds, ‘The efforts of the professors in helping us cannot be undermined, even when it comes to helping us raise funds through industry contacts or the sheer weight that a professor’s words carry.’

Being the major source of their sponsorship, every time I&AR holds Alumni Reunions, they showcase their product to the alumni in hopes that their interest might translate to investments in the team. They are also trying to reach out to the US alumni who would be willing to sponsor the team’s accommodation and logistics of transporting the pod to and fro.

The various industries who support the team in cash or kind include: Comsol Multiphysics which provides them a proprietary software for simulation such as temperature measurement, electromagnetic measurement and structural testing, Solidworks, Spartan which has provided the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), Mouser Electronics, SMC and Hexaware, a company whose CEO is an IIT Madras Alumni. There are several other companies that have agreed verbally, but are yet to sponsor the team.

They also plan to raise revenue by crowd-funding through various platforms and are constantly looking for plausible sponsors.

Aditya adds that SpaceX helps teams by providing each of them with a faculty advisor who is an expert in the field. Currently, Team Avishkar has 3 faculty advisors – one from SpaceX, one from Tesla and one from The Boring Company.

‘We have regular interactions with our advisors, maybe once in 10 days or so through a video chat. We submit proposals of our progress and are expected to tell them what progress we wish to make. The advisors review them and offer us corrective suggestions or provide insight into the future challenges that might arise as the pod hasn’t been built till now.’

So what lies ahead for Team Avishkar? We ask them about their journey thus far and the road to the next stage of the competition.

Can you give us an overview of the competition journey? When is the deadline for getting all your components ready and going to the US?

Enthusiastically, Ankit replies, ‘There are three rounds to the Hyperloop competition. The first one is the Preliminary Design Round wherein the team has to make a presentation about their design idea- qualifying which the team moves on to the 2nd round.’

A presentation of 30 slides was sent for the competition in the 1st round.

‘The 2nd round or Final Design round involves a detailed analysis and simulation of all the subsystems down to the last nut and bolt. The testing results of the subsystems should be shown to the judges if possible. Clearing this round, 5 sets of interviews with SpaceX is scheduled with each interview having 5 panelists from various teams of the organization. After surpassing the interview, a final shortlist was made by the judges and we have been shortlisted for the Grand Finale to be held on 21st.”

When asked whether they had a physical product ready the previous year, Aditya replies that a physical product or the pod need not be present till the final stage of the competition. Till then, all they required was a detailed analysis and simulation results of all their components.

The only thing that has to be left at the end of the first three rounds should be the manufacture of their pod.

Ankit continues saying ‘We had to brainstorm all the ideas initially and we relied on simulation software to test components such as the load their chassis could take and the actual layout of placing the components inside the pod.’

Giving an example of the way they proceed, Ankit explains the way they would use a battery.

‘The battery would be initially tested for its expected output and the team has to try and come up with foolproof ideas to maintain the battery in near zero pressure as the pod would be running in an evacuated tube. The challenges that the battery could face should be accounted for by the team. The way we test our battery and the duration of our testing has to be reported to our advisors who would give us the plausible shortcomings at any stage.’ He continues, ‘As a majority of the components aren’t designed for being used in vacuum, the vacuum compatibility test is an important testing type and for this, we are trying to reach out to ISRO through professors.’

Their prime focus now is to ensure that their pod is technically safe, and that none of their components should misbehave when projected at high speeds inside a vacuum chamber, while they achieve the highest speed possible and win the competition (which goes without saying!).

Just to give an idea of the level they’ve achieved and the kind of international teams the team has surpassed, Ankit gives an example of a Japanese team that had come in the top 20 once before, but couldn’t make it this far, and Éirloop, a team from – Ireland – who finished in the top 5 the previous year, but couldn’t make it that far.

 

When asked who their primary competitors were, Ankit replied that it was the German team TUMHyperloop, that has been claiming victory since the beginning. Aditya says that Team Avishkar’s design idea greatly impressed the judges in their first attempt in July 2017, because of which 5 members from the team were invited to SpaceX to present their idea, witness the competition and meet other teams so as to get an idea of how the pod designing works and how the competition is organized- an opportunity given only to a few select teams.

For building their pod, the metal used is aluminium and it is being fabricated by an external company who will then deliver the pod by June. The pressure to be maintained inside the vacuum chamber can be requested by the team and Team Avishkar has set a pressure limit of 1000 Pa, which is nearly 100 times lesser than the atmospheric pressure.

Speaking of the logistics involved, the team says

‘Transporting it via ship takes approximately 1 month. If a delay in manufacturing arises, air shipping would be considered. We are presently in talks with a cargo manufacturing company to help us realise this deal. We will also reach out to the Maharashtra Government and Virgin Hyperloop’s deal if proper channels are acquired. We have reached out to the MHRD, and are awaiting a response.’

 

The final round of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition will be held on 21st July, 2019 at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and we wish Team Avishkar all the best for their upcoming journey.

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