Logistics revolution: powered by Hyperloop

08 February 2017

Logistics revolution: powered by Hyperloop

Logistics revolution: powered by Hyperloop

For Tom Vervoort, Vice President of IT at DHL Express Netherlands, it came as no surprise that the Delft Hyperloop team took the highest honors at the SpaceX Hyperloop competition in Hawthorne, California. Vervoort had been there since the very beginning of DHL’s partnership with the team and was fully aware of their expertise and vision when it came to their Hyperloop pod.

“I had seen the aerodynamic calculations and seen the levitation system work,” Vervoort recalled after Delft had won the competition. “The only thing we needed was confirmation.”

The test run saw the Delft team’s half-scale design pod perform exactly as advertised. It proved that Hyperloop was a viable concept – a disruptive technology that will not only change travel as we know it, but logistics as well.

Innovating logistics

The potential impact on logistics is what brought DHL and the Delft Hyperloop team together in the first place. The students were looking for information they could use as a business case to answer questions about how Hyperloop would compare to a train or a plane, the costs associated with transporting goods and the potiental reduction in carbon emissions. DHL – present in 220 countries and territories around the world – has decades of experience in the logistics industry to answer the Delft team’s questions.

In return, Delft’s expertise in Hyperloop technology showed what would be possible in the logistics branch if the technology was in place. Vervoort gives an example: currently, DHL collects customer packages every day and brings them to DHL hubs and gateways, such as the European hub in Leipzig.

Flights depart the Leipzig hub every night for other DHL hubs and gateways around the world, where deliveries are dispatched to customers. This is a nightly cycle, completed with the goal of sending full airplanes to their destinations. With Hyperloop, the numbers look a little different.

“The volumes that you need to fill to go from Amsterdam to Paris, for example, are much lower,” Vervoort said. “It could be worth it to go every hour or every thirty minutes, rather than once per night. The cost is lower than that of a truck, and the speed is comparable to a plane.This could allow same-day delivery service within Europe.”

Hyperloop presents an exciting opportunity to increase the speed, lower the costs, and reduce the environmental impact of the logistics industry, but there is one problem at the moment: the infrastructure for Hyperloop is not in place anywhere in the world!

Low-pressure tubes need to be constructed over several hundred kilometers for the technology to be viable, but the first real-world use of Hyperloop technology is not far off. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are in serious talks about linking the two cities with Hyperloop pods, and similar discussions are ongoing in China.

What comes next?

For DHL, the most important thing now is to be ready when the time comes to use Hyperloop pods for transportation.

“We need to think about it now before the technology is available,” said Vervoort. “You can think about how loading and unloading might work, how it will be integrated into your current system, and maybe secure some patents. There is a competitive advantage that could be wasted if you wait.”

That involves staying in contact with the people who are on the forefront of development – people like the engineers on the Delft Hyperloop team.

Topping Elon Musk

Designing the best Hyperloop pod was not the first time students from the Delft Technical University in the Netherlands had proved their green engineering mettle: many students on the Hyperloop team had also worked on the university’s solar-powered car teams.

When Elon Musk – the founder of SpaceX and a proponent of Hyperloop technology – announced the Hyperloop competition, a team of 30 Delft students answered the call to come up with a working prototype for a test run at SpaceX headquarters.

Musk originally envisioned the pods hovering on a bed of compressed air, much like an air hockey table. Vervoort recalls that one of the Delft team’s earliest successes was taking a long, hard look at Musk’s concept.

“In three or four months, they had calculated everything and said ‘Elon's idea is pretty good, but we've got a better one,’” he said.

The Delft Hyperloop team realized that the air compressor required to create that kind of lift force would use a lot of energy. Instead, they turned to magnets to provide the levitating force critical to the pod’s success at a fraction of the energy consumption.

The technological intuition is impressive enough, but the Delft Hyperloop team also secured funding, brought several sponsors on board, and built a working prototype in just 18 months – “pretty amazing,” said Vervoort. “I think these guys have a great future ahead of them.”

Some of the members of the Delft Hyperloop team are taking the project forward as a business, and with the recognition they earned at the SpaceX competition, they can now be considered leaders in the field.

With implementation of a full-scale Hyperloop system merely a matter of time, and DHL’s commitment to innovation, green technology, and staying on the cutting edge of logistics, don’t be surprised if DHL and the whiz kids from the Delft Hyperloop team cross paths again in the future.