News / Science & Technology

    The Trickle-Down Technology of America's Cup

    Oracle Team USA's AC72 catamarans train near Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, California, Aug. 21, 2013.
    Oracle Team USA's AC72 catamarans train near Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, California, Aug. 21, 2013.
    Reuters
    Software titan Larry Ellison's decision to race the 34th America's Cup on high-speed 72-foot catamarans, which are harder to build and sail than keelboats, has been criticized for pushing the competition too far beyond traditional sailing and pricing out non-billionaires.
     
    But this is the America's Cup, Silicon Valley's style — it's all about technology, ideas and information — and advances made in preparation for the races are already being felt in television, aerospace and sporting gear.
     
    “The America's Cup has a long history of innovation on all kinds of levels,” said Gary Jobson, the tactician on Ted Turner's 12-meter yacht Courageous when it won the Cup in 1977. “The boats have always had the leading edge of technology, whatever the technology has been.”
     
    Sailing shares with aeronautics the physics of lift and drag and high- and low-pressure airflow — picture a plane turned on its side in the water with one wing a “dagger board” protruding below the hull and the other a vertical mainsail.
     
    This is even more true of Ellison's huge dream cats, known as AC72s. Instead of a traditional mainsail, they are powered by 135-foot-tall fixed “wings.” Forward, they usually carry just a small sailcloth jib to help turn their twin bows through the wind when coming about.
     
    With horizontal fins at the tip of each rudder and dagger board blade below the water's surface, the radical yachts commissioned by Oracle Corp's Ellison — who could define the parameters of this year's Cup boats because he won the 2010 America's Cup in Valencia, Spain — can “hydrofoil” atop the waves at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour.
     
    Carbon-fiber revolution
     
    The AC72 may represent the America's Cup's greatest innovation yet — a mostly carbon-fiber sailboat that borrows heavily from aviation technology.
     
    Industries increasingly share techniques for using Space Age materials adopted early on by yacht builders. Carbon fiber and titanium are the favorites to reduce weight and cost, and add strength to hulls, airframes and components.
     
    Boeing Co. has been sharing information with America's Cup boat designers and builders for years, according to America's Cup sources. A Boeing spokesman said the company could not confirm or deny an America's Cup connection.
     
    Design innovations have trickled down in boating since Alan Bond — an Australian real estate and mining entrepreneur who declared bankruptcy in 1992 and was later imprisoned for fraud — revealed a winged keel that gave his Australia II syndicate the edge over Dennis Conner's Liberty in the 1983 Cup.
     
    Today, many cruising sailboats have similar horizontal surfaces on the bottom of their keels to help them steer straighter and faster. Experts expect hydrofoiling designs to likewise end up on recreational sailboats very soon.
     
    The tall AC72 wings have incorporated twistable flaps along their trailing edge that help maximize lift and keep the boat flat. Aircraft may soon borrow this idea for wing-control surfaces to replace multiple flaps, according to Tom Speers, head of wing design at Oracle Team USA and a former Boeing engineer.
     
    “You could envision an airplane wing where you had full-span flaps that did a number of functions,” Speers said. “They would move together for both roll control and as landing flaps or for maneuver load alleviation and so forth.”
     
    The giant AC72 weighs just 13,000 pounds (6.5 tons, or roughly the weight of two average sedans), thanks to the high strength-to-weight ratio of carbon fiber. The boats are lifted out of the water each night, and the wings are removed for tuning, storage and to remove cameras.
     
    When not sailing, the fragile AC72s are under repair — or are being rebuilt, as after Oracle's AC72 capsized last October. Unfortunately, the AC72 can be fatally fragile: In May the catamaran of Swedish challenger Aremis flipped and broke apart, killing British Olympic sailing champion Andrew Simpson.
     
    “We all said, 'Maybe we are too cavalier about this regarding construction,'” said Oracle's lead designer, Dirk Kramer.
     
    To save time, yacht builders have advanced methods for pre-impregnating resins in carbon-fiber fabric to shorten and simplify the process of laying the fabric around a rigid honeycomb core and hardening the layers together in a mold. This cuts out the costly, time-consuming process of heating the composites in ovens.
     
    From Edison to Ellison
     
    There are many firsts this year aimed at widening the appeal of the Cup. The sailing is in sight of spectators on shore in Ellison's home waters of San Francisco Bay. And you can download real-time race data and apps to watch the crews in action, thanks to remote-control cameras affixed to each AC72.
     
    The event was custom-made for television, with the scenic backdrop and close-quarters racing intended to make the Cup exciting to viewers at home.
     
    Thomas Edison had the same idea when he brought his newfangled motion picture camera to film the America's Cup in 1899 off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The reel helped introduce Americans to motion pictures. Edison set a standard that still exists for covering big athletic events.
     
    “The decision to capture the decisive moments of a race that featured 90-foot yachts rather than attempting to capture the event in its entirety necessarily involved strategic planning, coordination and timing,” wrote Raymond Gamache in his 2010 book “A History of Sports Highlights: Replayed Plays from Edison to ESPN.”
     
    That footage reinforced a business relationship between Edison and banking titan J.P. Morgan. Morgan happened to be the owner of Columbia and Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, home to the trophy since it had been won from Britain in 1851 by the schooner America, the Cup's namesake.
     
    Morgan's investment in Edison's early power grid evolved into the General Electric Company, although the inventor who put the light bulb in homes had moved into movies by that time.
     
    In 1899, the same year Edison brought his movie camera to the Cup, Italy's Guglielmo Marconi was invited by the New York Herald to demonstrate radio for the first time in the United States by broadcasting the America's Cup from a passenger ship.
     
    Fast-forward to a modern sports television trailblazer named Stan Honey, who is director of technology for AC34.
     
    Honey is a champion Volvo Ocean Race navigator and helped set a record for circumnavigation under sail. He also happens to have led the development of the moving yellow first-down line, which revolutionized televised American football in the 1990s.
     
    Honey built on the innovations of Ian Taylor, Paul Sharp, Alan Trimble and Tim Heidmann, who together pioneered the use of computer graphics in the 1992 America's Cup, which let viewers track boat positions and tactics.
     
    The 1992 Cup also introduced cameras that made steady aerial filming possible from a helicopter.
     
    Jobson, winner of two Emmy Awards for his sailing broadcasts for ESPN and public television, said the gyroscope-stabilized Cineflex camera and a highly specialized lens called a Schwem GyroZoom, ended an era of shaky distant shots from blimps and was quickly adopted for other sports, from auto racing to golf.
     
    In 1992, producers could show videogame-like tracks for America III and Il Moro di Venezia as they sailed off San Diego, California, to illustrate race tactics and relative positions, or live aerial shots of the boats racing — but not simultaneously.
     
    For AC34, Honey's team has integrated the two, using GPS to aim cameras mounted on multiple helicopters to focus within two centimeters of the center of their moving subjects.
     
    Viewers experience the colorful lines, dots and shading of wind and currents, boat tracks, course boundaries and mark rounding zones like natural features of San Francisco Bay.
     
    “People wanted to see the real boats and crew sail, handling and puffs on the water, and at the same time wanted to have aids to interpretation such as lay lines, mark circles and advantage lines showing who's ahead and behind,” Honey said.
     
    Staying safe and dry
     
    When sailing upwind at 20-plus knots into a 20-plus-knot Bay westerly, AC72 crews are exposed to tropical-storm-force winds and a fire hose of salty spray. They are endurance athletes, wired with heart monitors and other sensors, who need waterproof breathable outerwear permitting freedom to rush back and forth across a 45-foot taut mesh trampoline between the hulls.
     
    Because of the high risk of capsize, safety gear has been adapted from other extreme sports. The sailors don helmets and carry a small oxygen tank to be used if they get trapped under water.
     
    PUMA, the shoe and sportswear manufacturer, is a corporate backer of America's Cup 34 and has sponsored the Volvo Ocean Race. The company expects its investment in gear for extreme sailing conditions to find its way into other outdoor sports.
     
    Sailing helped PUMA define its in-house CELL system used to describe different functions of their performance products and allocate materials to manufacturers. Any Puma product with “drycell” on it means that it helps keep you dry, while “visicell” is a product with high visibility.
     
    “Because sailing gear is very technical, PUMA learned a vast amount about working with new materials and sourcing new factory options. Benefits for PUMA are long term because this knowledge can transfer to other categories within the company,” a spokesman for PUMA told Reuters.
     
    This America's Cup has even inspired innovation in academics, where Jan-Michael Ross and Dmitry Sharapov, professors at the Imperial College Business School in London, are seeking to use publicly available race data from the preliminary America's Cup World Series, sailed on the smaller AC45 catamarans, to illustrate how tactical decisions on the water can be used in business situations, especially in winner-take-all-competitions.
     
    Not that Larry Ellison needs any instruction.

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