5 Tech Innovations Behind Extreme Sailing — America's Cup Preview

By Asim Khan, Director of Information Systems, Oracle Team USA

The 34th America’s Cup constitutes a complete makeover for the oldest trophy in international sport, bringing the electrifying experience of professional boat racing to San Francisco. Thousands of shore-side spectators will be able to watch live, while on-board cameras and microphones will extend the excitement to viewers around the globe.

Fittingly, all this innovation is largely driven by technology, especially when it comes to the boats themselves. Building and sailing an AC72 catamaran demands extensive performance analysis based on collecting huge amounts of data, and applying the right analytics to improve boat design and performance.  Essentially, we need to be information gluttons and analytical gourmands, and we have five essential tools to help us succeed:

Data collection. More than 300 sensors throughout the boat collect a huge amount of performance data and transmit it to a server in the hull. We’ve got about 3,000 variables running about ten times a second when we’re sailing, from sensors that measure strain on the mast to angle sensors on the wing sail that monitor the effectiveness of each adjustment. We run several video feeds, and take still images of the sail wing every second. We pull about a gigabyte of raw data per boat per day as well as about 200 gigabytes of video per day.

Depending on what we’re measuring, we’ll configure a light feed of about 150 key parameters and transmit them in real-time to the Oracle Database on the performance chase boat.  For example, if we are measuring sail wing performance in certain conditions, the feed will be heavy on data from the wing.

Real-time analytics.  The performance chase boat is the analytical hub, where we run a whole raft of different analyses live while the boat is sailing. Sometimes the analysis requires a very complicated combination of 10, 20, or 30 variables fitted through a time-based algorithm to give us predictions on what will happen in the next few seconds, or minutes, or even hours in terms of weather analysis. We rely on the Oracle Database, along with a number of screens around the boat running simple Java applications on displays that show us the sensor-generated numbers. We run a four-man crew, all involved in real-time analysis geared to make the AC72 really scream.  One team member analyzes data from the sail and wing, while another looks for data trends; a system tech monitors the system itself, and I look at the data from a sailor’s point of view to see how the performance is changing. We can also pull data from the shore system via a 4G connection.

Performance sailing technology. Each crewmember wears a ruggedized PDA on his wrist, and receives a real-time, customized feed of information to help improve performance—what the load balance is on a particular rope, for example, or the current aerodynamic performance of the wing sail.  We don’t want to overburden the wireless network, but at the same time foiling demands requires real-time, accurate information. So we use Java for the PDA displays—it’s lightweight and can maintain a high refresh rate for up to 30 devices without crashing the network.

Historical analysis. We use a custom application called Race Cutter to package historical data into a geographical frame for review. The design and sailing teams can compare today’s sailing data to information from a specific point in time and analyze any number of performance factors—the strain on the dagger boards, or the load on the rope, for example.  We also have still photos and video frames linked to that data, so if you click on a certain point in time, it’ll jump to the images and video from a number of different camera viewpoints. And it can all be shown linked to the live database information coming into Race Cutter, which is backboned by the Oracle Database.

Extreme database performance.  We just upgraded from our previous hardware to an Oracle Exadata Database Machine. We needed it, having outgrown our previous setup. We’re just settling into full use on Oracle Exadata, and the performance improvements are already startlingly evident. For example, Exadata gives us roughly a 10 times speed improvement on CPU-intensive tasks. When you are dissecting a training run, it is best to get at the data while the sail is still fresh in your head, so every second of performance improvement translates to better support for the sailing team.

This year’s America’s Cup will be like no other previous cup. From the boats, to the venue, to HD cameras on each boat showing close up action, you can expect extreme speed, action and excitement.





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