Oracle's new America's Cup yacht flies on Airbus technology
The America's Cup might be a sailing race, but now that all the competitors actually ride out of the water on foils, it has become more akin to a flying competition. So when Airbus' head of business development Pierre-Marie Belleau and Ian "Fresh" Burns from Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) were together at an event a few years ago, a logical idea was born. Why not apply Airbus' engineering know-how to OTUSA's yacht? The partnership was officially announced in 2014 and today, the resulting rocket of a sailboat was unveiled to the world in Bermuda, where New Atlas was on-hand.
Earlier in the day Belleau and Burns shared some insights into the partnership and how aeronautical tech has helped OTUSA build what they hope is a winning boat. Most notable is the fact that the sail, which is now known as a wing, and the foils on which the boat rises and rides, resemble components of Airbus planes.
Belleau pointed out that the wing on the boat is quite similar to the wing found on Airbus A320 planes, while the foils are comparable to the "sharklets" – the upturned edges of the wing – found on the same plane.
"The mast is 75 feet high (24 m), and is carbon fiber with a thin membrane over it, that actually makes a 3D shape, unlike a classical sail that we call a 2D surface and is not particularly efficient for making lift," said Burns. "This is a three-dimensional wing that is hinged and can be articulated just like the flap of an airplane to make an asymmetrical shape. The drag on this wing is roughly one-half to one-third what a conventional sail would have, but the actual force it can produce is roughly twice as much."
In terms of designing the foil, OTUSA benefitted from Airbus' extensive testing facilities where they were able to test the fins out under extreme stress and even break them to see how they could fail. Burns said ten to fifteen tons of load were put on the foils, which were then examined with x-ray tomography to see exactly how the structure broke down internally.
Airbus was also able to help OTUSA through the use of brand-new microelectromechanical sensors or MEMS. Typically used to monitor aircraft wings, the company developed a special version of the sensors to return information on the boat's wing. Eight strips containing a total of 400 sensors were applied to the wing during testing, which were able to reveal information about the conditions found at the top of the sail versus the bottom. Belleau pointed out that the wind speed at the top of the sail could be as much as 40 percent higher than that found at the bottom.
Burns added that the sensors were so accurate that they could measure down to a fraction of one pascal. (As a point of reference, standard atmospheric pressure comes in at about 100,000 pascals.)
Another logical application of Airbus tech to the sail boat the use of the plane manufacturer's expertise in aerodynamics. Because there are no wind tunnels big enough to test a boat the size of the America's Cup yachts (you'll see in the photos that the boat was actually in two parts during the unveiling), the team relied on Airbus modeling to get the boat as aerodynamic as possible.
"Modeling this kind of detail is difficult to do because most computational fluid dynamic applications models the air as small bricks or blocks of air that flow in one side and out the other," said Burns. "A calculation is done that averages what happens with the blocks of air.
"But it's very hard to model detailed things, like a wrinkle in your shirt, because there are hundreds of millions of blocks of air and the answers are not really well established and accurately done. This is where Airbus has helped us take it to the next level with a solution that more or less models the particles of air flowing with actual volumes rather than averages. Every single part of the boat, including the systems and all of the people on it, are accurately modeled down to a tenth of a kilogram."
And lest you think Oracle itself didn't have anything to contribute technologically, the company applied its big data expertise to crunching approximately 40-50 years of weather information that's been gathered by monitoring stations on Bermuda, along with current MEMS measurements from Airbus, to be able to better understand what the conditions in Bermuda's Great Sound (the race location) are like. This, they hope, will allow them to predict what the fastest course will be on race day.
The 35th America's Cup will take place in Bermuda from June 17-18 and 24-27. If the Oracle/Airbus partnership proves fruitful enough to trounce the competition, this will be the second win for OTUSA and the 31st win for an American team.