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Travelling At Sonic Speed

The Hyperloop is not just incredibly fast but also syncs with an automated traffic management system
twitter-logo BusinessToday.In   New Delhi     Print Edition: September 8, 2019
Travelling At Sonic Speed
Illustration by Raj Verma

India's plan to set up a Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop stretch and slash the four-hour road trip to 35-odd minutes is now a step closer to reality. The Maharashtra government recently gave it the status of a public infrastructure project and paved the path for companies to bid for this autonomous, superfast and zero-emission transit system.

If that sounds exciting, so is the technology behind Hyperloop, the brainchild of tech billionaire Elon Musk and his company SpaceX. The concept: People and cargo will move in pods at about 90 per cent of the speed of sound, either at ground level or below it. The pods will travel through sealed tubes/tunnels, not totally vacuum but depressurised enough to ensure very low friction. This is the speciality of hyperloop - it has to create an artificial environment to enable super-speed travelling. Without that environment, the pressure and the sonic boom generated by a pod travelling at near-sonic speed would be dangerous, to say nothing of the high energy required for propelling it. But as things stand, the pods will have neither wheels nor engines. They will levitate magnetically, and a 5,000 HP induction motor underneath will move them forward. Incidentally, it is not SpaceX, but the US-based Virgin Hyperloop One and the UAE's DP World who are the original project proponents for the Mumbai-Pune link.

The Hyperloop tube will be built on columns or tunnelled below ground so that there are no grade crossings (similar to railway crossings) or danger to humans and wildlife. The system will be fully autonomous, thus eliminating driver error. Each pod moves independently but travels in the same direction within the same tube. They also keep their distance and avoid bumping into each other by using an automated traffic management system.

One is already familiar with that traffic system, widely adopted by Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Mumbai metro railways. For instance, Delhi metro trains ply every three-four minutes during rush hours. But when a train gets stranded due to a technical snag, the one running three minutes behind it stops or slows down, and all trains coming behind them do the same. The Hyperloop pods will operate similarly. They will leave one by one when passengers are on board, much like a cable-car system, and gently accelerate to top speed while maintaining a safe distance from other pods. If a pod has to slow down for any reason, it will communicate the same to the management system, which will slow down all the pods travelling behind it. Multiple pods can be remotely coupled like the cars or compartments of a metro rake.

A pod can stick to a schedule and leave periodically, but smaller pods may travel more frequently. An estimated 16,000 passengers can travel per hour in one direction. But given the twists and turns of the Mumbai-Pune track, they could be moving at half the speed for safe navigation. Overall, you will only experience 0.2 g-force (the measure of acceleration) on the Hyperloop, about the same as on a train. While travelling, you should be able to enjoy your favourite cuppa without spilling a drop, companies with the knowhow tell us. That is quite believable. After all, Japan's Shinkansen (bullet train) goes from zero to 300 km per hour in two minutes, and even then, not a drop spills from a glass full of water.

Can We Block Face Recognition?

Where there is technology, there will be anti-technology protests. The growing use of face recognition in China and elsewhere is unsurprisingly leading to a backlash from those at the receiving end. The privacy threat cannot be underestimated either as this technology can be duped by photographs or 3D-printed heads.

One way to ward off facial recognition is to attack the software. That is what Joey Bose, a student of Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, did a year ago. The tool he developed is called Faceshield, and his company describes it as an Instagram-like filter that can be applied to photographs to block face detection online. "It adds noise to specific regions of the face such as eyes, nose or jawline to 'fool' the face detector into thinking there is no face in the photo. The photo is still recognisable, but the face detectors catastrophically fail," the company states. There are three levels of modifications done to the image. The first makes subtle changes, but these are enough to thwart face recognition and possibly the use of your face online. A medium-level modification breaks more detectors while an intense level makes enough changes to ensure that you will not recognise your face. One can submit one's photo for free modification on the website.

Almost everyone (from bars to airports to police) is keen on face recognition, but a few cities are also trying to ban it. However, what the protestors in Hong Kong did was unique. The islanders, who suspect that the surveillance methods of Mainland China are being imported there, found that goggles, masks and helmets were not enough for identity masking. So, they decided to shine green lasers at police cameras and riot officers to foil face recognition systems while taking part in anti-government rallies.

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