It comes as little surprise the 2013 America's Cup regatta is the most technologically advanced in history, especially when considering the defender, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, is a technologist. And the defender gets to set the rules of any challenge.
But technological advancement has occurred nearly every America's Cup since its inception 162 years ago because the participants always seemed to invent ways to make their sailing yachts go faster and tack sharper than the boats that preceded them.
Still, the current races being held in San Francisco Bay certainly employ an abundance of Silicon Valley know-how, even if the defending champion from the Valley -- Oracle Team USA -- currently finds itself trailing the challengers from Down Under: Emirates Team New Zealand. New Zealand could clinch the Cup with one more win. The Kiwis lead the best-of-17 regatta by an 8-1 score. (Oracle Team USA has actually won three races but started two points in the hole due to a penalty.)
Boats That Can Fly
Both teams have designed sleek 72-foot-long catamarans using aerospace technology. They are built more like airplanes than traditional sailing yachts. Gone with the wind are soft-fabric sails. During a walk-through of Oracle's massive hangar-like base facility at the Port of San Francisco, I got to knock my fist on one of the gargantuan 161-foot carbon-fiber and Kevlar "wings" that serve as sails, and it felt lighter and less dense than most commercial aircraft wings. (I covered airlines in a previous life.)
Indeed, this generation of sailboat doesn't sail. It flies across the surface of the water -- with the hulls literally not touching the surface of the water, except for their rudders -- at speeds up to 50 mph.
Just as commercial aircraft rely on computer technology to fly, these 21st-century America's Cup craft also must rely on computers, sensors and big data to maximize performance.
The Oracle Team USA boat has more than 300 sensors that collect vast amounts of performance data, transmitted to a server in the hull. "We've got about 3,000 variables running about 10 times a second when we're sailing, from sensors that measure strain on the mast to angle sensors on the wing sail that monitor the effectiveness of each adjustment," says Asim Khan, Oracle Team USA's director of information systems. The team runs several video feeds and captures still images of the sail wing every second. (continued...)
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