What happens when artificial intelligence, big data and self-learning technology meet aerodynamics?

Few traditional sports have harnessed the power of technology as well as motor racing. But high technology has also come to transform yachting and, in particular, the America’s Cup, a competition dating back to 1851.

Two years ago Land Rover became the title sponsor to the eponymous Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR), a British yacht team formed by the four-time Olympic gold medallist. The motor manufacturer used this link with the boating industry to build its first-ever race boat for what has come to be called team Land Rover BAR, and which sailed in the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda.

The result is Rita, a catamaran that has been described as “a fighter jet on water”, and one of the fastest of its kind.

The boat is as technologically advanced as a Formula One car, says Land Rover BAR boss Martin Whitmarsh. He should know — he has 25 years of experience in Formula One and once served as CEO of McLaren Racing.

Disappointingly for those who billed Rita as the next legendary sailing boat from England, Land Rover BAR was eliminated in the semifinals of the America’s Cup (the competition is still under way). But the company has hailed the team’s feat of reaching the semifinals in a race where the competition has more than 30 years’ experience.

In developing Rita, BAR engineers drew on Land Rover’s research into artificial intelligence and harnessed the power of data generated by test boats.

Rita comes in at 50ft and weighs 2,400kg. The catamaran took more than 35,000 man hours to build, and is capable of reaching a speed of nearly 100km/h.

A six-person crew operates the boat, and its four on-board cameras, 190 sensors and e-ink displays — clearly visible in sunlight — ensure that a remote team can track its movement and see what crew members can’t.

Richard Hopkirk, a master’s graduate from Harvard and engineering manager at Land Rover BAR, says data is collected from more than 400 different channels through sensors positioned all over the boat.

“In sailing, up until now, if you wanted to track what was going on on a boat, you would have to be in the chase boat following it,” he says. “We worked to develop a system whereby data from the boat gets transmitted back to base, along with views from four cameras and audio.”

This means the team at the Portsmouth, UK, base can follow the boat live. “Using this, they can provide feedback in real time, which made a real difference to the engineers,” says Hopkirk.

More than 16GB of data is collected over the course of each sailing session.

Not all the technology is new. Rita uses hydrofoils, which have already transformed the industry. Foil is another word for a wing, and a hydrofoil is likened to a wing that “flies” in water — it can lift the entire boat clear out of the water at speed.

Two hydrofoils are fitted to the fore of the catamaran’s two hulls. Each is bent at 90° to form an L shape, which helps it create lift from about 12 knots (23km/h). At these speeds, the force of water — nearly 1,000 times denser than air — is enough to lift the boat, reducing drag and increasing the boat’s efficiency.

Technology has been instrumental in building Rita. About 18 months ago, Land Rover started work on a machine-learning project, in which computers are fed a basic set of parameters and then teach themselves.

To start, the engineers created a “virtual ghost boat”.

Hopkirk says: “If you go out and sail a boat on the same stretch of water twice with the same crew, you will get a very different performance from it. Factors like the wind, water and the sailing itself would be very different.

“What we needed to do was filter out the parameters that could affect the performance to understand the underlying effect of the changes we made, which we got from sailing the virtual boat against the real boat.”

While the technology took the team as far as the semifinals, Hopkirk says it can be improved. “We learnt how to work together as a group after our first iteration of getting the [management, storage and analysis] data systems going and, as with any first attempt, you always finish it wishing you’d known all this beforehand.”

Hopkirk says Rita’s control system did really well. “The crew had a lot of confidence in it and was able to do some excellent manoeuvres, but our weakness, at a technical level, was our hydrofoils, and our rudders were just a development iteration behind our competitors’.”

The team’s strategy for the next America’s Cup will depend entirely on who wins this year and what that team’s technical route is. It could mean a big reset for Land Rover BAR in its bid to win the Auld Mug, the oldest international sporting trophy and one the British have never lifted.

Perhaps this injection of innovation will change that. Already the control systems used on the boats and the nature of the open water race have put the America’s Cup alongside Formula One racing. The sport certainly now has the technology of motor racing — and the spectacle is not far behind.

* Akabor travelled to Bermuda with Land Rover

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