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Turning the Chase Boat Virtual

 The third of our series in which Mark Chisnell looks at some of the ways the new America’s Cup is different to the old, from docking out to ‘Virtual’ chase boats. 

It used to be so easy. Instruments were rudimentary, so most of what could be gained came from an experienced and knowledgeable eye. The 1980s era America’s Cup boat travelled almost everywhere at about seven or eight miles an hour, so all you needed was a seaworthy chase boat (as they came to be called) capable of maybe 10mph.

Inevitably, it was technology that turned up the complexity dial. The sailing instruments onboard Cup boats got better and radio data telemetry meant that designers, coaches and performance analysts could sit at a computer screen onboard the chase boat, watch the sailing and see the data all at the same time. So the chase boats got bigger, more substantial and more comfortable as a result, but a solid, seaworthy, converted fishing boat would still do the job. Not any more.

There aren’t too many powerboats – never mind fishing boats – that can do 50mph; but that’s what’s required to keep up with a modern foiling, flying America’s Cup Class boat. There are even fewer that can do that speed while people sit comfortably working at computers, and those that can will measure their fuel consumption in gallons per minute rather than miles per gallon.

It was clear from very early in the planning of Land Rover BAR’s sailing programme that a different approach would be required. Enter the virtual chase boat. The concept was simple enough; the data would be transmitted directly ashore rather than to an accompanying boat.

There were many obvious advantages, not least of which was the cost and energy that would be saved. It would remove a boat from the water every sailing day, significantly reducing the team’s carbon footprint. It was the kind of project that had been envisaged when they partnered with 11th Hour Racing to work towards the sustainability agenda.

Sensor and video technology had now advanced to the point where enough data could be measured to accurately communicate the performance of the boat; removing the need to watch it sailing. The virtual chase boat would supply all the data that curious coaches, designers and performance analysts could ever need, and it would deliver that data to their office desks.

The only problem was turning the concept into reality. The virtual chase boat would require a data link with some serious capacity – all those sensors and cameras take up a lot of bandwidth. It would have to be a frequency that could be used legally. The likely available options would require the antennas to be line-of-sight – visible to each other – and that wouldn’t be a trivial undertaking when they could be miles apart, and one of them was attached to a platform doing 40mph through rough seas in a ball of spray.

It was a problem that the team had thrown to their Technical Innovation Group (TIG), chaired by the management and technology consultancy PA Consulting Group. The idea of the TIG was to complement Land Rover BAR’s existing design and engineering team, by bringing together experts from outside the marine industry to identify and apply technologies from other sectors.

PA Consulting and the TIG looked across different industries to identify the right technologies and worked with Land Rover BAR’s engineers to design a system and fit it to T1 – or Testing Boat 1 – the boat the team launched in October 2014 to test ideas just like this one. It’s a ‘black box’ (we’re not going to tell you any more) housed on top of the wing, and it collates all the sensor and video data and transmits it to Camber Quay. The concept passed sea trials in the summer, and the team began a full installation on T2 – Testing Boat 2 – which was recently launched. The Virtual Chase Boat will accompany T2 and her progeny on all their development and test sailing, wherever they are in the world.

Once the data reaches the team’s home in Portsmouth, specialist software has been customised for the analysis work. The data is then displayed on a bank of monitors in the ‘Mission Control’ room. It’s the kind of set-up that would make any video game-crazy teenager go weak at the knees. And it’s already producing results, insights into the data and performance that might well have been missed otherwise. It’s also taken an entire chase boat off the water, along with its daily consumption of diesel – and provided a case study in how technology and innovation can provide benefits across many of the team’s goals at once.