Eilat inks deal with skyTran, taking step toward futuristic pod transport system

US startup awaits ministry approval but hopes to start project this year; ‘maglev’ network could provide much-need reduction in traffic congestion

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

skyTran's testing facility being set up at a site in Mexico (Courtesy)
skyTran's testing facility being set up at a site in Mexico (Courtesy)

US company skyTran has signed a memorandum of understanding with Eilat to build a Jetsons-style elevated rail system that will cross Israel’s southernmost city to the newly opened international Ilan Ramon airport, a senior official at the firm said.

“The system will go down to Taba [border crossing with Egypt] and around the hotel area,” said skyTran co-founder Thomas Curran in a phone interview. “The city has a problem with traffic and this is the most viable solution. We are hoping to already start putting poles in the ground this year, but we still need to get approvals from the transportation and finance ministries in Israel. ”

This is the fourth agreement the startup has reached with an Israeli city, after last year skyTran — which has received investments from former Google chairman Eric Schmidt and India’s Reliance Industries — got the nod from the city of Netanya to operate the elevated rail transport system between the Sapir railway station and the Kiryat Nordau neighborhood, over coastal Route 2.

The startup also has memorandums of understanding with Herzliya – which is conducting a feasibility study for the project — and Raanana, where a feasibility study has been completed and the project is go to a regional committee for review.

A SkyTran pod (simulation courtesy of www.skytran.us)

The company has to do things in parallel: continue to develop its system while bringing municipalities and other entities on board, Curran explained

The transportation system is being developed by the Irvine, California-based skyTran in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries, which is also an investor in the firm, using technology developed at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

The plan involves a network of computer-controlled, two- or four-person “jet-like” vehicles employing passive magnetic levitation (maglev) technology; aluminum rails have a motor that spins a magnet that sits on the transportation pod, propelling it forward.

“This is a disruptive and game-changing solution for the planet and Israel,” he said. “It is a mass transportation solution where one bi-directional glideway has the same capacity as six lanes of a freeway.”

Thomas Curran of skyTran at the OurCrowd conference in Jerusalem, March 7, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The company hopes to have a commercial product up and running in the market in two years, Curran said, after it managed to raise funds over the past four years from investors.

In addition to Schmidt and Reliance, investors in the company include Draper Associates, WeWork’s Adam Neumann and OurCrowd, Curran noted, without revealing how much the startup has raised. He added that more funding will be needed to complete development.

The company last year conducted a demonstration of its transportation pod at a location of the Israel Aerospace Industries near Ben-Gurion Airport in which it “levitated” a 720-kilogram (1,587-pound) vehicle and transported it at 70 kph (44 mph) an hour, he said. The rails of the fully completed system will be at a height of some 8 to 9 meters (26-30 feet) above ground.

The company is now testing out the switching system, seeing if the pods can change from one elevated track to another and align correctly so passengers can disembark when they reach their destination.

A similar testing facility is being set up in Mexico and Texas, Curran said, with an additional half-scale development site up and running at a NASA facility in California.

skyTran’s testing facility being set up at a site in Mexico (Courtesy)

“The whole system can be set up with one-tenth of the cost of a light rail or 1/100th of the cost of a subway,” Curran said. And the traveling pods “don’t have to deal with traffic lights or crossings.”

Curran said he didn’t know yet where the first commercial application of the system will be launched. “I am hoping it is going to be in Israel but we don’t exactly know.”

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