10:29:57 AM. The 12th of January 2019. Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The screen read ‘Submitted’. And the room erupted with the cheers of the 28 students who were another step closer to making history.
It all began in September 2017. Three students with an idea. In an institute with the best minds from the country. The most unrelenting minds. The minds with the most passion. The minds that made “Avishkar Hyperloop”. SpaceX had just announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition. While the concept of Hyperloop was revolutionary, the idea was unclear. It had never been done before. Similar to the first manned mission to the moon, albeit on a much smaller scale. Conceptualized by none other than Elon Musk while he was stuck in a traffic snarl, this technology was on its way to be further developed to revolutionise the future of modern transport. And being asked to participate in this, were over 1600 college and university teams, from almost every single continent in the world. Avishkar Hyperloop is one such team. With almost 30 members ranging from First-Year students to Doctoral candidates, the team is truly an example of the diversity that India is known for. Assisting us are professors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, as well as some veterans of the Indian Technological Industry. With a dedicated workspace in the Centre for Innovation, IIT Madras, and a team with high levels of dedication, Avishkar Hyperloop has been striving to develop the First Self-Propelled and Fully Automated Hyperloop Pod of India. November 2017 was the turning point for us. Less than a month had passed since the team had started working on the Preliminary Design Briefing, the first stage of the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. It was a completely new experience for all of us. Any new idea, any hint of a possible development, any news regarding the competition were being closely looked at and analysed by all of us. Having no baseline from which to start, we were essentially playing chess in the dark. With such a diverse team, the team members were just unfamiliar faces, the first time the team met. And somehow, those unfamiliar people became part of a family. The team grew in strength, learning new concepts which were hitherto undreamt of, and the first basic design was ready in less than a week. It wasn’t perfect, not even close to perfection, but it was a start. It was a strong message to everyone who didn’t believe that such a daunting task could be done by a newly formed team in a week. And with that, the real job began. The design was further refined, hurdles were overcome by designing custom parts, but the maximum progress happened in our propulsion mechanism.With the objective of the competition being to achieve the maximum speed, conventional methods of propulsion were the last thing on our mind. And thus arose the idea of the Dual-Sided Linear Induction Motor. But that wasn’t something that was available commercially. So we took matters in our own hands. We developed our own. And it works. With a theoretical speed of over 150 m/s, this was something no one had done till then. Bolstered by this fact, a separate team was formed to exclusively work on the DSLIM. This was the first Research team of Avishkar Hyperloop. But not the last. But we were not satisfied. There was another major component hindering our efforts of achieving high speeds. The same factor that helps us walk, or write. Friction. So we overcame it, with another unconventional idea. We decided to levitate our Pod. And with it, was formed our second Research team. The Preliminary Design Package was submitted to SpaceX in November 2017. It was completed in under a month. For a team like us, it was a great achievement. We had done something that only a few other teams had the ambition to do. We had designed our own Hyperloop Pod. The cherry on top ? We cleared the round. We were through. SpaceX had selected 52 teams out of the 1600+ teams that had registered for the Competition, solely based on the Preliminary Design Package. We were in the big league now. From there, as we had anticipated, it only got harder. The Final Design Submission was scheduled for January 2018. It involved an extremely detailed description of the design, with special emphasis given to the intricate details, as well as the failure scenarios of every single subsystem. What were our plans if the pod failed to levitate ? What if the brakes failed ? What if the pod lost contact with the external control station ? These were just some of the questions we had to find the answers to. In short, our design had to be perfect. Which meant, we had to be perfect. Unfortunately, we weren’t. We failed to clear the round. We weren’t amongst the top 20 teams of the world. But the urge of being the best Hyperloop Team propelled us on. If it were a different team, they may have decided not to keep going. They may have moved on. But not us. We decided to give it another chance. Another year. But the same team. Three of our team members visited the competition at the SpaceX HQ in Los Angeles, California in July 2018. And came back with a ton of experience. We found out the missing piece of the puzzle, which was probably the reason for our debacle. The other teams were not miles ahead of us in experience, as we had anticipated. But they had something which we lacked. Test Results. For almost every single component. We started afresh. We had learned a lot from our past experience. We knew what to do, but most importantly, we knew what not to do. We knew the path that would lead us to repeat the same mistakes as the past year. And we were dead set on avoiding it. And to top it all, we had a new fresh crop of enthusiastic team members in addition to the original team. We revamped our design. The old design wasn’t unfeasible, but it wasn’t good enough for us to win the competition. We started over. We decided to use the tried and tested formula for our Pod. Electric Propulsion with DC motors. DSLIM was out of the equation. So was Levitation. The total Pod weight dropped to less than 20% of the initial 700 kg. The speed was also compromised. But we had a final idea of what to work on. And this time, we had more than just a month. The deadline for the Preliminary Design Submission was November 2018. We started our work in July 2018. And the difference in the time was reflected in our submission. The design was ready in October 2018. We had a month before the submission. So we did what we missed the previous year. We ordered the components and planned to test those. While this helped us to validate our design, it also helped us in finding out a few flaws that might have proved fatal if forgotten about. The datasheets of the motor revealed that things weren’t as smooth as we had expected them to be. The additional task of making sure that the components work inside a vacuum was also a daunting job. Despite all these challenges, we repeated our success. We cleared the Preliminary Design Round. Once again. History was repeating itself. But the future was in our hands. And we weren’t about to let the second chance go to waste. Not with the amount of preparation we had done. And certainly not with us being the Only Indian Team to reach this stage twice. The motor was ordered. The cells for the battery pack were ordered. Actuators for the Braking Subsystem were ordered. The brakes were tested. The motor was tested. The Propulsion and Braking subsystems had their game on point. But the biggest challenge was for the Controls and Communication team. How do you test the components of a pod, which give you multiple inputs at the same time ? That may be easy. But how do you test it without having the components at all ? Now that is a challenge. But not something that was able to stall us. With a lot of our team members being fans of old and classic video games that can only be played now-a-days on emulators, we did what naturally occurred to us. We built an emulator and tested out our controls and communication circuitry on it. As expected, we got positive results. At around the same time, our two research projects, the DSLIM and Levitation also made progress. Gladdened by the technology being developed, we received great support from the Department of Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research, IIT Madras. The two research projects are now fully sponsored by IC&SR. And then dawned the New Year. And with it, arrived the deadline of the Final Design Submission. 12th January 2019. A day that will remain etched in the minds of all our team members forever. This was the day that helped us create history. With the design submitted, the team was anxiously waiting for the results. Running the pod through the Kilometre-long tube at Los Angeles was the driving force for all of us. And soon came the news. We had to appear before SpaceX officials for an online interview based on our Final Design Briefing. The preparation began. Panels were formed, mock interviews held. No stone was left unturned. And on the day of the interview, it all went according to the plan. Without a glitch. And then began the wait. The wait for the results. The results which would determine if we would go to SpaceX as Spectators, or as Participants. And then we got the results. We had hoped for positive results. And positive they were. We were through. The only Indian team. The only Asian team. The one and only.