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If a person uninitiated in modern sailboat racing scaled the fence surrounding Oracle Team USA's headquarters in San Francisco's Pier 80, he or she might think the facility housed a secret UFO laboratory. Lacking a sail to betray its maritime purpose, the racing team's huge, still-under-construction boat is dominated by a pair of rakish, wing-shaped hulls whose aerodynamic design evokes Area 51 secrets more than seafaring tradition.
Named the AC72, the vessel--or possibly an updated version to be built later this year--will help Oracle Team USA defend its America's Cup title, which the squad won in 2010. The boat is at the cusp of science fiction, decked out with new technology to make it faster and give spectators a more intimate experience.
So new are the AC72's advancements that reporters were forbidden from photographing the AC72 during a recent tour of the facility. Though some details were kept under wraps, attendees were told about a variety of sophisticated hardware and software tools that have been implemented into the AC72's design.
These tools include sensors that use Wi-Fi to communicate real-time information to sailors, allowing crew members to push their reaction times even further. "In the old days, you'd have a mark on a rope [to define the vessel's limits]," said Shannon Falcone, one of the Oracle Team USA sailors, in an interview. "Nowadays, everything is being streamed live on any parameter." He said that sustained Wi-Fi connectivity had been a problem when similar tech was deployed during past campaigns. Thanks to a partnership with Silicon Valley-based Ruckus, however, Falcone remarked that the Oracle team has "found a way around it."
The sensors also feed a wealth of information to analysts in order to validate design changes. The custom software involved in the process has not been fully disclosed, but it's likely that existing technology from the Oracle portfolio plays a role. The 2010 team that won the America's Cup relied on Oracle Data Mining in Oracle Database 11g, according to a Sail World article.
The advance peek at the AC72 was part of the America's Cup World Series Press Day, before a series of preliminary races running August 23-27. Leading up to the America's Cup finals in September 2013, these matches offer teams not only a chance to push new designs but also to grow acclimated to the Bay Area's unique conditions.
For the August races, all 11 of the competing teams are using AC45 boats. These boats share the two-hull design and distinctive name--catamaran--of the AC72, but are much smaller. Each AC45 is 45 feet long along its water-touching surfaces, whereas the finished AC72 will measure 72 feet in length.
Both the AC45 and AC72 use towering wing sails, structures that superficially resemble traditional sails, but are built around a rigid cross-section in the fashion of an airplane wing. The design provides a better lift-to-drag ratio, allowing a catamaran to use air currents for propulsion in much the same way an aircraft uses the airflow to stay in the sky.
Eduardo Aldaz, who works with electrical components and data analysis for Team USA, said that wing sails helped prompt field-wide use of AC45s during the World Series.
Aldaz stated that the 2010 Oracle team that won the America's Cup switched to a wing sail late in the game, prompting moderate controversy in the process. "It could be perceived as an unfair advantage if you start a new race with wings, and you're the only one who's ever used one," he explained. Following this criticism, Team USA, which won the 2010 championship by a wide margin, decided to build "a prototype boat that will have all the technology that needs to be used for the America's Cup, and do a cycle with it, so the teams can start an America's Cup campaign [without worrying] about designing a new boat from scratch." He clarified that each team could design its own sail, and that all the clubs were equipped with "good designers" to do so.
In addition to promoting a level playing field, the AC45s, which Oracle supplied to the other teams, were intended to entice more competitors into the field. The technology-sharing was designed, said Aldaz, to "give [each team] a pretty good starting point for designing their own boat." The cost involved in such a venture--estimated at up to $100 million overall--has deterred some would-be participants; though the August World Series features 11 teams, only two challengers--Artemis of Switzerland and Team New Zealand--were in the final stages of building bigger, AC72-style boats for the main event. An Italian team is expected in the final field as well, and there is a chance that a Korean squad could still enter the fray--but the championship looks to be less grand than Oracle CEO Larry Ellison had initially projected when he began lobbying for the event to be held in San Francisco.
Sail onward to learn more about the tech behind the America's Cup.
Oracle Team USA sailed to victory in 2010 in the USA17, a racing yacht even more massive than the AC72 currently under construction. With a three-hulled design, the USA17 was a trimaran, in contrast to the two-hulled catamarans currently used.
The USA17's audacious scale was enabled due to a rule dispute among the teams contending for the 2010 title. Without a consensus on design or spending limitations, the 33rd America's Cup defaulted to a single limitation: the water-touching portion of each vessel could not exceed 90 feet. Oracle sailor Shannon Falcone, a veteran of four America's Cups who has been sailing professionally since he was 19, said that when he initially began competing, "Technology-wise, build-wise, we were pushing the limits of what the rules would allow us to do ... It was a little dated."
The rule change, he remarked, was "pure carte blanche for the designers and technology. You saw what the fastest boats could be [because] the designers had an absolute field day." The 90-foot by 90-foot framework of hulls supported a wing sail so large that Godzilla, had he emerged from the depths during a race, could easily have hidden behind it; at 223 feet tall, it remains the largest ever built, according to the Oracle Team USA website.
The USA17 also included sensor technology much like what's found in the current AC45 and what's planned for the AC72. Wi-Fi connectivity issues, however, caused headaches during the 2010 competition--a problem that the Ruckus collaboration has so far addressed.
The AC45 and AC72 represent advanced tech in their very design. By subtracting a hull from the USA17's base, designers were able to reduce costs while also creating a lighter, faster vessel. Low weights are further enabled by a honeycomb-link structure sandwiched between the carbon frames of each hull.
Aldaz said, "For a trimaran, you have to build three hulls, and that's actually more expensive than just building two." He explained that the catamarans use symmetrical hulls, allowing both pieces to be cast from a single mold.
Frugality aside, he said the design cue actually came from Alinghi, the team Oracle defeated to win the 2010 title. "Alinghi built something pretty phenomenal" using a two-hull base, he stated. Team USA decided to combine the sensor and data-amalgamation tools it was already using with its opponents' new boat layout. This collaborative attitude toward competitive balance developed further into the universal use of AC45s during the World Series races.
The two-hulled design allows sailors like Oracle Team USA's Shannon Falcone, pictured above, to reach new speed benchmarks. But they must also handle split-second decisions.
To facilitate faster and more accurate decision-making, hundreds of sensors distributed across the Oracle Team's catamarans feed information to an onboard server, which is enclosed in a waterproof enclosure. The server uses a single wireless access point to send data to devices that each crew member wears on his wrist. With Wi-Fi providing persistent transfers, the vessel needs no additional wires or other physical connections.
Team member Shannon Falcone said the personal devices have trimmed the number of crew members down to only 11, eliminating roles such as navigator in favor of a multi-tasking approach. "There's no one person interpreting the data anymore," Oracle Team USA IT head Asim Khan said in an interview with PCWorld.
Aldaz said the devices supply personalized and actionable information. "The sailors need information in real time," he said. "They need to know things like, 'I have a choice of maneuvers, [so] what could be the best at this time?'"
Some purists might question supplementing human judgment with computerized assistance, but the sailors still control the boat physically. Every crewmember is--with or without technology--a world-class sailor. Technology simply allows the sailors to push their bodies in new direction.
Though the sensor feedback and boat design enable faster sailing, they also limit sailors' margin for error. "There's gonna be some crash and burn," predicted Aldaz, echoing a San Francisco Chronicle article that forecast "carnage" during the races. He further remarked, "The really good teams have capsized. Team New Zealand is one of the top teams. They've capsized. We've capsized."
In addition to accelerating the catamarans, technology has also allowed sailors' missteps to be widely witnessed. Thanks to cell phone cameras, YouTube, and other forms of social media, spectators have become ad hoc documentarians since teams began training in the San Francisco Bay last summer.
Oracle partnered with Ruckus to solve Wi-Fi woes that had previously hindered both sailors and designers. According to a press release, a single Ruckus ZoneFlex 7892 802.11n AP transmits data from the catamaran's central server to the sailors' respective personal units.
The Ruckus device employs Smart Wi-Fi technology, which focuses and channels signals around obstacles to achieve the best available paths, thereby boosting the connection's strength, performance, and reliability. This tactic enabled maintained Wi-Fi access despite the AC45 and AC72's primarily carbon construction, which is generally disruptive to wireless networks. Ruckus products are also being used in Oracle's design and production facilities, as well as in the hospitality lounge built near the spectators' bleachers.
The collaboration between Ruckus and Oracle serves not only the sailors but also the Team USA designers and data miners. Following each training session, Ruckus Smart Mesh Wi-Fi technology sends gigabytes of data collected on the boat's server to a data center for analysis. This helps the team deduce whether boat alterations are working, by assessing whether calculated load tolerances fared as expected, or whether improved handling owed to design decisions or simply better-than-normal sailing conditions.
Aldaz said that design changes are often tested by sending similar boats out in pairs. "Essentially the one that got faster was doing better." For the AC-72's construction, however, he said, "It doesn't make a lot of sense to build two boats at the same time. You want to learn from one."
Waving to the incomplete vessel's frame, he stated, "We hope [this] isn't the boat that will race the America's Cup. We hope that our second boat will be a lot better." He said the in-progress model should be completed by early September, while the second vessel is slated to be completed in early 2013.
Aldaz also noted how Ruckus has helped with data collection. "We've been struggling to get real data out [of practice sessions]," he said. He said that range was typically limited to 200 or 300 meters, which meant following the racing vessel around in a motor boat to maintain a signal.
Though teams at the data center are not allowed to collect data during races, immediate collection during practice systems is essential to perfecting boat design. Falcone said money and resources haven't been the limiting factor--time has. The ability to quickly capture and analyze information ameliorates this shortcoming.
Aldaz said the AC72 will eventually undergo two-boat testing, but in the interim, design validation efforts will rely on data mining.
"San Francisco is an awesome place for sailing," said Aldaz. "It's got wind, it's got current; they're bringing [the race] very close to shore." Indeed, thanks to the catamaran design, the boats are able to sail very close to shore, giving both in-person spectators and TV crews a dynamic vantage point that could open the sport up to new fans. In the past, races were held miles off the coastlines.
The advanced catamarans also allow for a shortened course that forces sailors into constant adjustments--a more daunting challenge, but also a more impressive one.
The picturesque setting is certainly camera-friendly, but given that the Oracle team uses the San Francisco Bay for practice on a regular basis, one wonders if familiarity with the area's tricky conditions might yield a competitive advantage. John Kostecki, a sailor on one of two Oracle AC45s racing in the World Series, is doubtful. The Marin County native told the San Jose Mercury News , "It evens out pretty quickly as teams sail here more. The course area is very small, so at the end of the day there really isn't any home field advantage."
Oracle Racing initially formed to compete for the 2003 America's Cup. It subsequently entered a team in 2007 before finally winning the regatta, as a representative of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, in 2010. The first campaign was funded primarily by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. The following two campaigns attracted heavy contribution from BMW, which has since dropped out as a sponsor for the upcoming championship. With tech on its side, Team USA is the favorite to win the 2013 sailing apotheosis--but fans will have to wait a little over a year to see if all the pieces come together.
The fall will reveal whether the AC72 takes Oracle's already-substantial technological gains to the next level. Avid Bay Area fans might get a sneak preview once the vessel begins testing. Until then, it will remain under lock and key at the team's foreboding Pier 80 home base.