Artist's conceptual illustration of the Zeleros hyperloop vehicle.
Illustration: Zeleros

Artist's conceptual illustration of the Zelersos hyperloop vehicle.An artist’s illustration shows the Zeleros hyperloop vehicle.Illustration: Zeleros

Just two years ago, industrial engineer Juan Vicén showcased his university team’s hyperloop concept at an event hosted by SpaceX, the pioneering Silicon Valley space startup. But when Vicén discussed the status of the technology on Wednesday at MWC Barcelona (formerly called Mobile World Congress), he was onstage with veterans of Europe’s rail industry.

The change in scenery shows how reality has brought hyperloops down to Earth—a necessary step for any new transport technology. Hyperloops are a futuristic idea whose fame emerged from the enthusiasm of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The concept involves building an airless tube where a pod can carry people or cargo at near supersonic speeds.

The MWC conversation also underscored how legacy operators, such as Spain’s former rail monopoly, Renfe, and its former telecoms monopoly Telefónica, are grabbing onto young innovators in a bid to monitor and capitalize on an uncertain idea that is attracting bright minds and venture capital.

Meantime, the European research community, and rail companies and regulators are trying to establish standards for fitting evacuated tubes into existing long-distance rail networks before each company and country adopts its own approach, as they did with rail more than a century ago. Spain and France, for example, which neighbor each other and are both members of the European Union, have different rail widths, voltage standards, and operating rules.

“Nobody thought that the countries that would form the European Union would connect their rail networks in the future,” said David Villalmanzo of the International Union of Railways. “So hyperloop startups should be thinking about that now, by way of some European framework, to discuss prestandardization of some technical things.”

Vicén and two other young engineers from Polytechnic University of Valencia’s student hyperloop competition team founded Zeleros in 2016, and after bouncing among several startup incubators, landed at one hosted by Renfe and Telefónica, called TrenLab. Zeleros is now preparing a medium-scale model of its prototype vehicle for testing on a 2-km track in Sagunto, Spain.

Artist's conceptual illustration of the Zeleros hyperloop vehicle and track.Illustration: Zeleros

The company’s next step will be to build and test a full-size model on a full-size tube, but that may well take place outside Europe, Vicén said. Certain markets are more enticing thanks to the density of people and weak alternative transport options, such as the area served by a planned Mumbai-Pune hyperloop. Another much-touted project is the proposed Dubai-Abu Dhabi line, which claims it will be the first to market when it opens in 2020.

And despite Europe’s transferrable technological expertise in building high-speed trains, aircraft, and infrastructure, its regulatory environment will take longer to navigate, Vicén predicted.

Mechanical engineer Juan de Dios Sanz of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid said Europe’s regulatory approach makes it somewhat weaker in the short term for this kind of innovation but perhaps more robust in the longer term. He also pointed out that, despite the desire for Europe-wide cross-compatibility, there are already local initiatives for hyperloop concepts in the works, such as for the Bratislava-Budapest-Vienna corridor.

“It’s not possible to wait” for consolidated standards at the European level, Dios said. Indeed, industrial giants such as Tata Steel are already supplying hyperloop projects, partly via an agreement with Zeleros, Hardt, and other manufacturers, who last year announced a voluntary agreement on at least some standards.

Hardt is hiring someone to help it manage those standards and lobby for a European directive on hyperloops—anyone who speaks French, German, Spanish, and Dutch is a shoo-in.

The tension between agreeing on rules and promoting innovation is very much present in these early days for hyperloops. By keeping startups close via initiatives such as TrenLab, legacy companies with deep pockets can keep an eye on how the technology—and the standards—evolve while they decide which hyperloop train to catch.

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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