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Creating Space Travel on the Ground: Hyperloop’s Anita Sengupta

As a leading engineer and exec at one of the most promising hyperloop companies, Anita Sengupta believes these high-speed trains are the future of transportation

Did you want to go to CES but couldn’t make the trip? If Anita Sengupta and her team at Virgin Hyperloop One get their way, the trip will be much easier. After working at NASA for 16 years (and helping land the Mars Curiosity Rover), her new position as senior vice president of systems engineering at Virgin Hyperloop One allows her to take the same things she’s studied – magnets, vacuums and engineering – and apply them to one of the most talked about technologies. And with the hyperloop, a New Yorker could get to the Las Vegas show floor in three and a half hours - half the time of an airplane. 

Elon Musk popularized the idea in 2013 when Space X released a white paper about the hi-tech train-like pods. The whitepaper proposed using electromagnets to propel pods through a vacuum tube, avoiding any form of resistance or friction. If optimized, it would allowing people to safely travel up to 700 miles per hour in the trains. As companies rush to create this technology, Hyperloop One is already a top contender. In December, it set a top speed of 240 mph in test runs and received major funding from Virgin founder Richard Branson.

“Hyperloop technology, as I like to refer to it, is space travel on the ground,” said Sengupta while part of the CES panel, From Sci-Fi to Showroom: A Status Report on Future Transportation. “It allows us to be really fast, efficient and get from point A to point B in a green mode of transportation.” And in the future, Sengupta sees advances like these being capable of changing the daily work commute, travel options and infrastructure.

Before speaking at CES, she also spoke to i3 about her journey to Hyperloop One and how they plan to revolutionize how we get from here to there.
Why did you leave NASA to work for Virgin Hyperloop One?

Last year, Hyperloop One's test run reached a record 250 mph

I worked at NASA’s [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] for about 16 years – my background is aerospace engineering, but my Ph.D. thesis specialty is actually in magnetic propulsion. There’s a lot of overlap between my technical background in space-based application and how it can be used for terrestrial high-speed transportation. Part of the reason I left is [Virgin Hyperloop One] gave me a really unique opportunity to put my space engineering skills to something that would actually benefit people here on earth by making green transportation and reducing energy consumption. It was a cool way to work on a challenging engineering task that utilized my space skills. The other thing too, is that since I was in a leadership role, it was important to me, as a woman and a woman of color, to actually do my part to get more women in these roles. And sometimes the way to do that is by doing it yourself!

The idea of a hyperloop has been popular since Elon Musk’s 2012 whitepaper were you a believer in the technology since the beginning?

For me the idea of a hyperloop really wasn’t that surprising. A lot of my thesis work was done [about] vacuum chambers. For electromagnetic propulsion systems for space crafts, you have to be in a vacuum for it to work. You can also think of it as a maglev train inside of a vacuum chamber. So I was a believer because I had the background of an engineer from the beginning.

What are the biggest challenges for developing hyperloop technology?

Right now, we are trying to demonstrate faster and faster speeds. As you go faster, behavior can become different – aerodynamic effects and interesting dynamic effects play more of a role – so as we increase speed, we want to make sure the system still operates as it should. We also want to make sure our models of how the systems behave match up with the test data we collect. Our goal is to create a system that can go even faster, so it can facilitate easier transportation and lose less energy.

Is there a breakthrough Hyperloop One is working towards?

Ultimately, it’s just going faster. But part of my role is taking something from technology to actual implementation. So you can have a prototype of this system but ultimately you will want to have the actual working article. Part of my role as SVP of systems engineering is to certify the system for eventual human use. A lot of the challenges are associated with being able to understand how you can meet all the regulatory requirements around the world.

What can be done to implement this technology for common use?

Hyperloop One's pod on display at CES

On the engineering development side, we are currently working on designing a system that can carry more people or potentially more cargo, which allows us to solve transportation problems and blockages that have existed across the world. One of the things [we had] at CES was an implementation pod that is big enough to hold people. We are trying to make a bigger pod so we can carry even more people and eventually implement a transportation system that can beat air travel at 700 miles per hour. The engineering development cycle for the pod itself is like developing a miniature airplane, since you have to develop what powers the pod, the controls and implementation of the electromagnetic propulsion. There’s a lot of engineering work that is being done to refine these pods so they can go at faster speeds.

In terms of how we are implementing it around the world, we have several engineering capability studies in Dubai, Colorado, India and activities in the Netherlands and Finland.

Is the most important work being done with data collection and research?

Yes, it’s largely about model validation. One of the wonderful things we have now, as opposed to the past, is that we have amazing computational power. If we can utilize computer simulations to make predictions of performances and minimize the amount of testing you have to do, we can actually consume less money and also consume less resources in general.

What is your message to local and state governments curious about hyperloop?

We have actually already had interactions with state governments. In Colorado, I went to one of those meetings, as well as in Texas and probably some other places before I got here. We have meetings where we talk about what a particular route could look like in their state, how it would navigate from one city to another city, and what kind of turn radius it could have. We also talk about how people could get on and off the pod in these stations and what the wait time would be like between the pods. We have also been doing development on [software]to show how you could utilize the system to go from point A to point B – sort of an on-demand transportation system.

How will Hyperloop One ensure it becomes a true replacement for public transportation?

One of our top business requirements or business drivers is cost, so we are designing our system to be at that cost per kilometer. It is certainly in mind. Basically, a ticket price will be consistent with what a train ride will be. It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won’t use it.

Your CES supersession panel was called “From Sci-Fi to Showroom: A Status Report on Future Transportation.” How has science fiction inspired you?

I’m an enormous science fiction fan! I grew up watching the Original Star Trek series with my Dad so I absolutely love Mr. Spock because how logical he was. I also grew up watching old school Dr. Who reruns so I have always been a fan of space travel and the idea that there is a lot more out there than we understand. The unknown and exploration absolutely fascinates me. So being part of enabling cities for the future is very much in line with sci-fi – but it’s better than sci-fi. It’s fact!

What can the tech industry do to improve gender diversity in its companies?

One of my other jobs is that I am a professor at USC. I teach in the astronomy department and the percentage of women who are part of the incoming class is still less than 30 percent. I think it is about the exposure that girls get when they are really young – even at the grade school level. It is really important that schools let girls and young women know what a career in engineering looks like, getting girls and young women involved in robotics clubs, chemistry sets and fixing cars. Those are the kind of things my father gave me as a kid because he was an engineer, so  I was always using my hands and had a very different experience as to what the career of engineering is.

Jeremy Snow, Consumer Technology Association