MATTHEW SHEA­HAN

Ad­vanced Au­topi­lots played A ma­jor role in the de­vel­op­ment of this year’s Amer­ica's cup boats And may yet be the event’s great­est legacy

Yachting World - - Front Page -

The re­cent Amer­ica’s Cup boats had au­topi­lots. Ad­mit­tedly not like the ones you and I are used to, but an au­to­mated han­dling sys­tem none­the­less. The so­phis­ti­ca­tion and com­plex­ity of such sys­tems var­ied across the fleet but the prin­ci­ple was the same, to help the crews learn about how to sail their im­mensely pow­er­ful and wildly un­sta­ble boats.

The on­board com­put­ers would take a range of in­puts from ba­sic data such as wind speed, boat speed and head­ing to more so­phis­ti­cated in­puts such as roll, heave, pitch, ac­cu­rate ride height, wing trim data and so on. With this in­for­ma­tion hos­ing around a fi­bre op­tic net­work and in con­junc­tion with highly so­phis­ti­cated VPPS, the on­board sys­tems could mon­i­tor, ad­vise and con­trol cer­tain as­pects of the boat.

As I un­der­stand it, the sys­tems didn’t in­clude the steer­ing, but did con­trol as­pects like the trim of foils.

Of course, feed­back sys­tems weren’t al­lowed dur­ing the Cup, so be­fore the boats were rac­ing for real the sys­tems were dis­con­nected. But in train­ing the sys­tems al­lowed crews to learn how to sail their boats with­out break­ing them.

“Like other teams, we were so para­noid about break­ing a foil that in an ex­treme case the com­puter would cap­size the boat rather than risk dam­ag­ing a foil,” one Cup de­signer told me.

Al­low­ing a com­puter to of­fer a help­ing hand is now seen by some of the world’s top de­sign­ers as be­ing both a nat­u­ral and nec­es­sary step in the evo­lu­tion of higher per­for­mance boats as well as pre­sent­ing big ben­e­fits for the rest of us.

A de­signer who be­lieves this strongly is Guil­laume Verdier. He is one of the most tal­ented and in­flu­en­tial de­sign­ers of the cur­rent era and cur­rently re­spon­si­ble for the de­sign of the new 105ft (32m) foil­ing tri, Gi­tana 17, a boat that is big­ger than most peo­ple’s back gar­dens, yet lighter than an Oys­ter 45.

He be­lieves that we are on the cusp of a whole new era of tech­nol­ogy thanks to the lessons that were learned de­sign­ing Amer­ica’s Cup au­topi­lots.

“The con­trol sys­tem ac­cel­er­ates the learn­ing process. When you de­velop the con­trol sys­tem you need to un­der­stand the physics of the boat, so you need to be able to fully de­scribe the lift and drag of ev­ery ob­ject on the boat in­clud­ing the el­e­va­tor, the dag­ger­board, the rud­der, the foil and the aero­dy­namic lift and drag. Then you will know what speed, what be­hav­iour, what an­gle of at­tack you need for a cer­tain true wind speed.”

But know­ing what to do to achieve sta­ble flight is one thing, achiev­ing it man­u­ally is quite another. It is here that Verdier be­lieves that the sport needs to change.

“My dream is that the rule mak­ers al­low con­trol sys­tems to be open in some classes. Even if we’re talk­ing about me­chan­i­cal sys­tems, they would be bet­ter than noth­ing. This could open things up like they have for the [In­ter­na­tional] Moths where me­chan­i­cal wands ad­just the ride height au­to­mat­i­cally.”

An in­ter­est­ing point that avi­a­tion ar­rived at many decades ago. To move for­wards we have to al­low ma­chines to take some de­gree of con­trol. Fighter pi­lots rely on this as do we in our cars with trac­tion con­trol and ABS, so why not our boats in the fu­ture?

“A mod­ern foil­ing boat is such a com­plex ma­chine for the sailor to un­der­stand it could take a great deal of time to learn – too much pos­si­bly. But if you have soft­ware that helps you a lit­tle bit we can re­duce the time it takes to learn new skills.”

And if you still think he’s talk­ing about a boat you’ll never get to drive, you’re prob­a­bly right. But he is adamant that what is learned at this level will trickle down.

“Today an au­topi­lot doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand how the sail is trimmed or other pa­ram­e­ters. It doesn’t know that the keel is canted or that you have a dag­ger­board down. If you can have a sys­tem that un­der­stands the be­hav­iour of the boat more ac­cu­rately at any given time it could re­ally steer the boat bet­ter.

“When you see the way that au­topi­lots are cur­rently steer­ing our cruis­ing or rac­ing boats there’s a lot that could be im­proved.”

So, if the world’s best sailors are happy to ac­cept a help­ing hand from an au­topi­lot, surely it will be OK for the rest of us.

‘AN AU­TOPI­LOT THAT UN­DER­STANDS A BOAT WOULD STEER IT BET­TER’

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