Apex Team

Blood, Sweat & Determination

Kenneth Shirley
Lead Mechanical Engineer, Hyperloop One

Theodore Roosevelt put his faith in the man in the arena, the competitor whose face is “marred by dust and sweat and blood … but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” That well sums up the 200 men and women, engineers, technicians, welders, and fabricators who built DevLoop, Hyperloop One’s test track north of Las Vegas. No one’s ever built a Hyperloop before, let alone one this fast. We laid the foundations for the first columns in September 2016 and starting running vehicle tests in May.

Building a 1640-foot long elevated steel tube in the Nevada desert for a vehicle that’s now going through it at 192 mph was an engineering and construction challenge.  I’m one of the site problem-solvers. My job is to bridge Hyperloop One’s development and design teams in Los Angeles, the manufacturing team at our Metalworks shop in North Las Vegas, and the DevLoop construction site. Someone once called me “engineering spackle.”

Regardless of how careful a schedule any of us keep, each day is different; there are no dull moments. What you thought you were going to do in the morning was generally NOT what was accomplished by 4 p.m. All of this while either freezing in the surprisingly bitter Vegas winter, or roasting in the blazing Vegas summer. Why do I do it? Let me tell you a bit more about the project and I think you’ll see why. Here’s a look at what a day at DevLoop is like.

A Day At DevLoop Begins

About two hours before the sun rises over the Nevada desert, we are up and assembled for our daily meeting, coffee in hand, and eyes still adjusting to the light. The morning standup is where each specialty group gets their daily goals. We point out safety issues and concerns. Discuss any environmental issues, remind people of our responsibility to preserve the work area.  Time for the morning “stretch and flex.” It’s a bit of a running joke: The same technician, Danny, has been pigeonholed into leading it every morning. Pouring a little salt in the wound, all in good fun, we end with the most important statement of the day, “Danny, do the stretchy thing.”

The team breaking ground at DevLoop
The team breaking ground at DevLoop

My Role

When you’re building the first system in the world of its kind, you need someone to bridge across teams, offices, and, sometimes, personalities. The engineering of this project was unique in almost every regard. True, there are larger vacuum chambers in the world. There are more precise large-scale structures. There are equally large tubular constructions in almost every hydro-project found all over the world. And there are large mass driver systems operating at high energy in labs, and now on aircraft carriers. But, with a team the fraction of the usual size and budget, working in the Nevada desert where temperatures range from frigid to blazing, we combined ALL of these components into one system. My role was only a small part, one stone in the arch, and like almost everyone on site, I wore multiple hats. At various times I designed tooling, performed analysis, did machine work, welded, swept floors and shoveled sand. But that’s how we work.

What We Built With DevLoop

In under a year, we built the fourth largest vacuum chamber in the world, 1,640 feet long, with a total air volume roughly equivalent to several family homes. We built a transportation test rig that uses thousands of volts to accelerate our XP-1 vehicle down a guided path at speeds generally reserved for race cars. We designed and built a power distribution system capable of switching off and on in milliseconds. We built relationships with local and international corporations, allowing us to put in place the infrastructure of the ONLY full scale Hyperloop test site on earth. And, at this point, having completed this first system, we have begun testing and have successfully integrated our vacuum, propulsion, levitation, pod, control systems, tube, and structures.

Although it looked easy due to the speed and level of final perfection achieved, we problem-solved many issues on the fly: welding and alignment, power and fluid management, civil engineering, and system control. We faced each challenge, and did it so effectively that on the first pump-down we found only one minor, easily-remedied leak. That’s almost unheard of with vacuum systems, and almost impossible with one this size on your first pump-down.

Nov. 2016: Installation of the ‘fixity,’ or first tube of the DevLoop test track in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nov. 2016: Installation of the ‘fixity,’ or first tube of the DevLoop test track in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

​​​​​​​March 2017, Hyperstructure complete. DevLoop site in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
March 2017, Hyperstructure complete. DevLoop site in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

We also installed and successfully tested a delicate medium-voltage system, in itself a challenge. But to do so in a vacuum (where arcing becomes an order of magnitude larger challenge) with no major faults or failures - it’s an incredible feat. We did all of this while maintaining a system accuracy enviable of projects a tenth our size. And all of this in a tube which limited our access to one or two entrances, and required us to maintain a level of construction safety vigilance one would expect to find in a nuclear facility. Following those initial checks, we have built on that foundation with successful test after successful test, which proved our designs worked, and that our engineers and scientists are some of the best in the world.

A Unique Construction Challenge

This project itself was about as brutal a test of a startup’s culture, engineering, and management that could be conceived. I worked at SpaceX for four years, and although the stresses, engineering work, and budget demands were similar, the timeline and tasks-to-manpower ratio we took on with this project seemed far more difficult.

What made our operation unique was the synergy between the designs coming from our Los Angeles Innovation Campus and the fabrication and development going on at Metalworks, the world’s first Hyperloop factory, here in North Las Vegas. It takes a mature organization with mature engineers to recognize the value and trust the input of the technicians, fabricators, and other support staff performing the work. Conversely, it takes mature and intelligent technicians to recognize and value their own experience and opinions enough to voice them with confidence.

But in the end, it is in these small details, daily checklists, and pivotal, even heated discussions that the real strength of a team and organization is formed. Building to the scale of DevLoop requires visionary thinking, but it also requires lugging the generators, cleaning the dust out of the tube, and organizing time tables of 200 engineers, technicians, and fabricators over two shifts.

Another Day At DevLoop

At the end of each day on my drive home I often stop on the road, kill the truck, and get out for a moment. I seldom have time to just stop and look at the desert, the tube, the colors, and sounds. There is a stillness in the air of this valley, and in those final quiet moments of the day’s light it’s easy to settle your thoughts, quiet your mind. You can envision the tube extending into the distance, a line to the horizon. A nebulous strand of silk carrying us into the future world.  A world where my children will wonder at the stories of road trips, how we ever survived with long road trips, traffic accidents, hours spent fighting with siblings in the back seat, flats on the side of the road, brutal lines in security, turbulent flights, long waits on a hot tarmac.

What I realize is that when things get hard it means we’re growing. We challenged ourselves to work harder, to work together, and to communicate better and faster than any company before us because that’s what this challenge asked of us. Now we’ve cut our teeth, and we are ready to revolutionize the transportation world. If people are impressed with what we accomplished in our infancy with this project, they’re going to be in awe of our next moves.

​​​​​​​ Hyperloop One Engineering Milestones
 Hyperloop One Engineering Milestones