Imagine travelling from London to Edinburgh, but instead of a five-hour train journey, you ride in a magnetically levitated (or “maglev”) pod hurtling through near-vacuum, low-friction tubes and arrive in less than an hour.
What sounds like science fiction may become a reality within our lifetime.
The hyperloop concept of high-speed travel is in active development in Germany, Switzerland, Britain and the United States. This new technology could one day revolutionise transportation, including shipping, even as Singapore reaches for even higher goals in maritime tech.
Mr Lee Wei Juin, a Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) Overseas Scholar, was excited to be a part of HYPED, a project team within The University of Edinburgh to develop hyperloop technology. In September 2022, HYPED built their first test track in Edinburgh.
For seven months, the 26-year-old was the project manager for HYPED’s quality assurance team while concurrently pursuing an engineering degree in electronics and computer science at Edinburgh.
“Until a year ago, I hadn’t heard about hyperloop, so it was very cool to work on something so new. It can potentially help us move away from more carbon-intensive options like flying,” says Mr Lee.
As project manager, he led a team to write and review code for the motor controller, the sensors and telemetry of the hyperloop test pods.
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“Everyone has their own style of writing code, so as project manager, it is important to be objective and give feedback to the programmers,” he says.
Despite criticism about the cost and feasibility of hyperloop technology, Mr Lee still sees value in working on such cutting-edge technology.
“Hyperloop is just like the iPhone when it first came out,” he points out. “Many people didn’t see the need for it, but it has shown its value over time.
“Technology is iterative and makes incremental improvements. All new technology will face criticism, but we should give it time to mature and let its advocates push its boundaries.”
A heart for public service
Mr Lee had previously interned at private firms but chose to join the public sector instead.
“When I did software work during internships at private firms, the product’s impact was primarily driven by profit,” he observes. “But when I interned at public agencies, I was surprised to find that they provide a huge range of services to the public. I envision myself making an exponential impact in public service.”
Mr Lee is confident of the relevance of computer science and technology to Singapore’s port operations.
“With the 5G network becoming more prevalent and available even in remote maritime areas, we can see the viability of technology like autonomous ships, remote management, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) supporting labour-saving applications such as remote maintenance,” he says. “It is a really exciting time to be in tech and MPA.”
Mr Lee’s decision to take up the MPA Overseas Scholarship was shaped by his father’s influence. As a child, Mr Lee would listen to his father talk about his work as a craftsman at Jurong Shipyard. He even had the opportunity to visit Raffles Lighthouse.
When MPA awarded him the scholarship in 2021, Mr Lee was already sure about his intended area of study and university of choice.
“The University of Edinburgh is one of the few universities offering a joint honours programme in Electronics and Computer Science, and it is world-renowned for its Computer Science (CS) programme,” he says. “One of my CS professors wrote a programming language called Haskell. As a student, I have had the opportunity to contribute to the development of the language.”
A digital green future
Mr Lee’s skills in software, coupled with his passion for technology, has strengthened his optimism for his future career at MPA.
“Ships and ports are complex electronic systems, and they will only get more complex and digital,” he says.
Singapore is building the Tuas Port which, when completed in the 2040s, will be the largest fully automated port in the world. After he returns from his studies in mid-2025, Mr Lee hopes to get the role of a software engineer or solution architect at MPA.
“Computer science has taught me ways to solve optimisation problems – from the most optimal route for ships to travel, to optimising cargo loading and handling,” he says.
Mr Lee hopes that, through technology, the world can transition into a greener future – in line with Singapore’s 2050 commitment to achieve net-zero emissions.
“We will use less carbon-intensive fuels, automated efficient shipping to minimise carbon emissions and even analytics to foresee and avoid energy crunches,” he says.