Imagine you're a competitive sailboat racer, about to go into the richest and most storied of all sailing races with a squillion-dollar boat and a razor-sharp crew. Now imagine somebody hands you a device that can quite literally map out the wind activity up to a kilometer out in front of you, showing wind speed, direction and turbulence - and giving you the almost superatural ability to adjust your sails and take maximal advantage of a wind pattern before you even reach it. It's almost an unfair advantage, isn't it? Well, this is the situation that BMW Oracle Racing's Russell Coutts finds himself in as the team gears up to take on defending champions Alinghi in the 2010 America's Cup. The device is called a Racer's Edge laser wind sensor, and it's built around a technology base that's being used to optimize wind power generators. We caught up with Phil Rogers, CEO of Catch the Wind, Inc, to find out more.

Laser wind sensor - how it works

Catch the Wind's core technology is a laser system that can read wind speed and direction from up to a kilometer from the point at which it's measured. Put simply, here's how it works: a pure colored laser is fired into the atmosphere, where it starts to bounce off all sorts of particulate matter floating around in the air. These particles are moving in a particular direction and with a certain velocity that is an excellent approximation of the wind speed at that point - and when they bounce the laser waves back at the device, the doppler effect causes a slight wavelength shift in the returned light. This doppler shift is enough to calculate wind speed and direction at any given point.

The technology isn't new - in fact, Catch the Wind CEO Phil Rogers points out that "it was one of the first practical uses of lasers back in the sixties. But what we've done is to implement that technique in an all-fiber optic implementation which has resulted in a very lightweight, compact, rugged and affordable system that can survive a harsh environment."

Catch the Wind for green power

The technology's primary commercial use is for wind farms - Catch the Wind sells a unit called the Vindicator with a 300-meter range. With incoming wind direction and strength data, the turbines can be tuned for best effect for each gust. The direction the turbine is facing, as well of the pitch of the blades, can be altered to get the best results - high energy yield without excessive flex or vibration in the blades.

But laser wind speed measurement is also handy in a number of other areas - firefighting, for example, where advance knowledge of a change in the wind could save firefighters' lives. Air traffic controllers, with advance knowledge of what wind conditions are moving in, can time takeoffs and landings better.

And you can imagine what an effect this kind of advance knowledge would have for a competitive sailor - knowing what the wind's doing out in front of the boat would give you the ability to tune your sails in advance to get the most out of the wind conditions - and even help you select a better course to take.

Catch the Wind at this year's America's Cup

All of which probably helps to suggest why the betting odds are shortening for BMW Oracle Racing to win this year's America's Cup, which is just about to get underway in Spain - as Catch the Wind has just been named as an official supplier to the team.

As if the BOR 90 trimaran's massive carbon-fiber wing sail isn't enough of a technological leap, the crew will now have access to a wind activity map showing up to a kilometer in advance where the best wind is and what it's doing. The US$149,500 Racer's Edge laser wind sensor is hand-held, and roughly the size of a pair of binoculars.

"This device is wireless... It can [send] the data to the onboard computer should the user so desire. It also has its own display, a wireless linked display that can be wrist-worn, or mounted to a display, or on your belt, or whatever," Rogers explains. "What the display would show is the wind vectors and speeds around the boat. And it remembers those, so it can produce a wind map."

Wind speed and vector mapping is a heck of a step forwards from the traditional 'get up high and look at what the tips of the waves are doing' method. It's likely to be an important tool in the BMW Oracle Racing team's arsenal in this race, and it's hard to imagine such a system not being a must-have - or being banned - from future events.

A consumer version not too far away

While the Racer's Edge system is currently extremely expensive, it's set to become part of a family of 'Windseeker' devices with similar abilities, targeted less towards high-stakes sailboat racers and more to recreational sailors, firefighters, pollution control, sports teams and the like.

"Obviously, as time goes by and in the not-too-distant future, we would hope to come out with a less expensive version of it, maybe without all the bells and whistles," says Rogers, "When we release a recreational or regular model, we hope to have that price down to several thousand dollars."

It will be fascinating to see the results of the America's Cup this year and hear skipper Russell Coutts' assessment of the Racer's Edge technology and the effect it might have on the contest. The 2010 33rd America's Cup starts next week in Valencia, Spain.

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