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
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’