Meet the Irish Hyperloop team aiming to win over Elon Musk and SpaceX

22 Feb 2018

Image: petrmalinak/Shutterstock

Ireland’s very first entry into the SpaceX Hyperloop competition faces an almighty challenge, but team Éirloop is ready for a scrap.

Every great underdog story has to start somewhere. In this case, it was on a set of posters in the bathrooms of universities and colleges across Ireland.

Just like the start of a movie where the protagonist is trying to put together a talent show band, it caught the attention of a number of students who were presented with one objective: build a working Hyperloop test pod.

And not just any Hyperloop pod, but one that could reach speeds of around 500kph and potentially kick-start a transport revolution.

For those unfamiliar, the Hyperloop concept was proposed a number of years ago by SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

But, with his interest in getting humans to Mars and running his Tesla electric car business at the same time, he couldn’t commit.

So, the challenge was set for other research groups and companies to flesh out the concept that would allow a pod to travel at blistering speeds while levitating within a near-vacuum pipe.

A true nationwide collaboration

Not wanting to just leave the idea totally to other companies, SpaceX did decide to help out by building a special 1.5km Hyperloop test track and inviting research groups to build their own pods for the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

Now, two competitions in, 20 teams from across the world are set to take part in the next iteration on 22 July this year at SpaceX’s headquarters in California.

Among them will be Éirloop, which will fly the flag for Ireland with students from eight different institutions, including: Dublin City University (DCU), Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Institute of Technology Tallaght, Maynooth University, Carlow Institute of Technology, and the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

Éirloop team

The Éirloop team at its base of operations in DIT, Aungier Street. Image: Éirloop

‘Scrappy Irish team’

Spread across multiple institutions, Éirloop is led by Bartlomiej ‘Bartek’ Baran, a first-year electronic and engineering student in DCU, with Akhil Voorakkara – also of DCU – acting as its head of electronics and marketing.

Speaking with, the pair were happy to describe themselves as the “scrappy Irish team” of around 30 people, mostly comprising first-year students.

Even getting to this point has been something of an achievement because they were not expecting to make it through the initial application, which requires a lot of documentation and schematics on pod design and expectations.

“[Submitting] our final design to SpaceX was a bit of an adventure in itself,” Voorakkara said. “It was during our exams actually, so it was not the first thing on our minds.

“It’s practically unheard for a team in the first years like us to make it to this stage … and it was really amazing how all the universities pulled together.”

Not a one-time pod

Following on from the German team that won last year’s competition with a pod that could go 400kph, the Éirloop team believes it can get its pod up to speeds of around 480kph.

While Voorakkara and Baran admit that the other, more experienced teams will be aiming for speeds almost twice that, they feel their pod is still up to the task thanks to its two 160kW motors that they describe as “monsters”, with more oomph than a Tesla Model S.

Where the pod will supposedly stand out from others, they said, will be the fact that it is being designed as a ‘hybrid’ vehicle that will not only work as a pod this year, but could be used for another pod should they decide to enter again the following year.

“When we were going through the design brief, a lot of the teams were on their second or third year [in the competition] and all of them built on their early pods,” Voorakkara said.

“We like to think we were smart about it to design the pod to be something that we’re not just using to make as an investment for ourselves and throw the money away on a one-time pod. It’s an expensive piece of kit.”

Pod model

What the Éirloop pod will actually look like during the SpaceX competition. Image: Éirloop

Funding, funding and more funding

This is really where Éirloop’s true underdog status comes in as, right now, the team’s priority is getting the necessary funding to not only finish building the pod, but to ship it over to California for the race.

Based on the team members’ calculations, the whole endeavour will cost in the region of €235,000 and, at the time of speaking to them, they have significantly less than this.

“Some of the other teams we were talking to raised $90,000 before they found out they got through to the competition; we’ve got through and so far have about €500,” the pair said.

But all stories have to start somewhere and, over the next few months, they are embarking on a fundraising campaign reminiscent of a US presidential candidate.

“Of course, we’re in talks with the universities who should be offering us financial assistance to get things moving,” Voorakkara said. “The focus really right now is fully on sponsorship and getting our name out there.

“We want the country to be behind us. This is Irish talent here and we’re competing on the world stage against the best teams from the US, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere.”

Another potential source of revenue is the team’s recently launched GoFundMe page, which aims to attract contributions through crowdfunding, while those with deeper pockets are sought out to sponsor the team and get it as close to its financial target as possible.

Pod sketch

A preliminary sketch of what the full-scale pod would look like. Image: Éirloop

Irish Hyperloop

Looking to the future, does Éirloop think that we could one day have our own Hyperloop system?

While a number of routes have been proposed across the world by governments and the Hyperloop companies, Ireland would appear to be one of the last places that would ever get one, if it proves successful.

The reality is, Hyperloop requires large distances in order to be feasible to build, but the Éirloop team is a little more optimistic.

“[Commercial air travel] didn’t come to Ireland until widespread options were there,” Voorakkara mused. “It’s a question of letting the first few routes be built in the biggest countries where they need it, such as between the east and west coast of the US.”

If an Irish route were to be built, say, between Dublin and Galway, the team calculated that you would be able to travel from coast to coast in a little over 11 minutes.

There are five months between now and the deadline day, and Éirloop and its members will need to work at a blistering speed to make it, just like their pod.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic