We got a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Land Rover BAR sailing team hoping to leave Oracle’s Larry Ellison with a red face in this year’s America’s Cup.
Using some rather nifty custom-built mobile app tech, running on off-the-shelf Android hardware, the team hopes to win the America’s Cup for Great Britain for the first time since the competition began in the 19th Century.
The app which will be central to Blighty’s fortunes in this year’s race was built by specialist bods Coderus, who are based at BT’s Adastral Park in Suffolk. Thanks to recent rule changes, America’s Cup crews are now limited to six sailors instead of the previous eight – meaning the team can no longer afford to have the tactician standing around the deck instead of mucking in with the rest.
They'll be up against the Oracle-sponsored Team USA, current champions, and also Japan, who are sponsored by tech titans Softbank. A number of other countries are also taking part.
Coderus’ app will help tactician Giles Scott maintain his situational awareness even while he has his head down grinding away to generate hydraulic power for the boat’s systems. A nifty little piece of custom work, the app’s display shows not only the boat’s position overlaid on the racecourse but also turning points, distance to go to next waypoint, boat speed and it even automatically changes view to zoom in at critical moments – all without any interaction from Scott.
The Sony tablet running the app will even vibrate at key points to draw his attention back down when required. Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing to build the app: it was an iterative process with direct input from software and hardware engineers, UX architects – and, of course, Scott himself.
It was “essential” that the software “was well crafted so its operation kept pace with events as they unfolded, as well as being optimised for robust network, hardware and battery performance, given the length of time that the crew spend on the water.”
The boat itself is “a floating server”, we were told. She’s covered in sensors generating data on everything from the foils, the blade-like sections under the boat on which she “flies” through the water, to the hi-tech shrink-wrap sails.* Although the rules forbid external data from being beamed to the boat during the race itself, BT built what it calls a “military-grade” network to support the team – in effect, a private 4G network optimised for low latency. As the team trains, out in Bermuda, data from their boat is beamed back direct to Portsmouth, which is Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing)’s HQ.
The hardware behind that network is a prime example of the network engineer’s art. From base stations in the Bermudas, the link then goes to New York where it reaches the main trans-Atlantic backbone.
Getting behind the scenes
Britain’s America’s Cup team are based a rather swanky purpose-built HQ built directly opposite the main entrance to the harbour. Unfortunately, due to worries about opposing teams getting an edge over the brave Brits, the visiting press pack were completely banned from taking any pictures at all inside the Land Rover BAR HQ. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
On the ground floor is the spacious boat workshop, where test hulls and parts thereof remain while the team are out in Bermuda, where the race will take place next month. Other floors are given over to design offices, the team gym (each sailor is capable of putting out 1.5kW through the boat’s hydraulic grinders), mission control (complete with the obligatory giant screens displaying bewildering graphs and lines of numbers, as well as the race boat’s position) and the visitor centre.
Howard Watson, BT Technology’s service and operations CEO, told us: “We have teams across the globe dedicated to hunting the most talented user experience and software experts. We found that the very best expertise lay with Coderus in our start-up hub at Adastral Park, and we’re delighted to be supporting and working with such an innovative UK tech start-up.”
Everyone was very keen to paint a picture of a successful team that will bring the Cup home for Blighty. And we have no doubt they’ll do exactly that; Ben Ainslie, team captain, is one of Britain’s best competitive sailors of all time, and the technical team behind him are second to none. Yet there are still occasional flies in the ointment.
“We don’t have the skills in the UK to build an America’s Cup boat,” noted a rather gloomy attendee. A big part of the LR-BAR effort, aside from the race, is promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in schools and colleges.
Richard Hopkirk, Engineering Manager at Land Rover BAR commented: “This has been a fantastic example of how our collaboration with our technical partners can bring out the best of both teams, and allow us to achieve far more than we could do as a Cup team alone. We’ve managed to merge our in-house sailing and tactical expertise with the software development knowledge of BT and Coderus, and the result will be on the water helping us win races.” ®
* The sails are covered in the same plastic material used to wrap your supermarket chicken. Granted, it’s a bit thicker than what Tesco uses but its strength-to-weight properties made it an ideal choice.