Marine

Oracle's new America's Cup yacht flies on Airbus technology

Oracle Team USA on their practice yacht in Bermuda
Oracle Team USA on their practice yacht in Bermuda
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Oracle Team USA on their practice yacht in Bermuda
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Oracle Team USA on their practice yacht in Bermuda
The Oracle Team USA crew, along with the America's Cup trophy
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The Oracle Team USA crew, along with the America's Cup trophy
The doors to the yacht's warehouse being opened during the unveiling ceremony in Bermuda today. The yacht is so tall that it needed to be stored in two parts; the "wing" is on the left, while the catamaran is on the right.
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The doors to the yacht's warehouse being opened during the unveiling ceremony in Bermuda today. The yacht is so tall that it needed to be stored in two parts; the "wing" is on the left, while the catamaran is on the right.
The Team Oracle USA America's Cup yacht is made mostly out of carbon fiber, however 3D printing was used to create some titanium components that were approximately 50 percent lighter than previous parts
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The Team Oracle USA America's Cup yacht is made mostly out of carbon fiber, however 3D printing was used to create some titanium components that were approximately 50 percent lighter than previous parts
The yacht's sail (known as a wing) stored on its side in the warehouse. It resembles the wing of the Airbus A320.
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The yacht's sail (known as a wing) stored on its side in the warehouse. It resembles the wing of the Airbus A320.
There are 17 actuators aboard the yacht including those for elevator pitch, wing camber, jib control, and foil control
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There are 17 actuators aboard the yacht including those for elevator pitch, wing camber, jib control, and foil control
A hydraulic power supply exists on the yacht that must be powered by four crew members known as "grinders" who crank the handles seen here. The hydraulic system consists of 5000 psi pumps that produce the same pounds per square inch as the system aboard the Airbus A350 XWB plane.
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A hydraulic power supply exists on the yacht that must be powered by four crew members known as "grinders" who crank the handles seen here. The hydraulic system consists of 5000 psi pumps that produce the same pounds per square inch as the system aboard the Airbus A350 XWB plane.

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."

The yacht's sail (known as a wing) stored on its side in the warehouse. It resembles the wing of the Airbus A320.
The yacht's sail (known as a wing) stored on its side in the warehouse. It resembles the wing of the Airbus A320.

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.

The doors to the yacht's warehouse being opened during the unveiling ceremony in Bermuda today. The yacht is so tall that it needed to be stored in two parts; the "wing" is on the left, while the catamaran is on the right.
The doors to the yacht's warehouse being opened during the unveiling ceremony in Bermuda today. The yacht is so tall that it needed to be stored in two parts; the "wing" is on the left, while the catamaran is on the right.

"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."

A hydraulic power supply exists on the yacht that must be powered by four crew members known as "grinders" who crank the handles seen here. The hydraulic system consists of 5000 psi pumps that produce the same pounds per square inch as the system aboard the Airbus A350 XWB plane.
A hydraulic power supply exists on the yacht that must be powered by four crew members known as "grinders" who crank the handles seen here. The hydraulic system consists of 5000 psi pumps that produce the same pounds per square inch as the system aboard the Airbus A350 XWB plane.

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.

8 comments
JVL
The AC72 with foils and wings have been used for the cup since san Fran 2013, so yes it may use Airbus Tech now though the 72 foot cats used for the americas cup plus the 43 foot versions used in prelim training have been using wings as sails and foils since 2011/2012. So hardly New technology just a bit of brand name on it now wink wink. Still amazing Tech. Hard one to back now having mates sailing on Artemis and Oracle.
Cody Blank
JVL your mates didn't tell you that they aren't racing the AC72? It's the "AC50" that is going to be raced, which is close to the AC45s that they've been racing this past year but with important revisions.
RikvanHemmen
I doubt that there is anything that Airbus can contribute that the America's Cup designers have not already looked at. At best there may be some detail computational analysis work that Airbus can provide or some composite or specialized metals manufacturing technology. Airplane manufacturers have always trailed America's Cup technology and probably always will. I worked on the 1987 America's Cup and we worked with a half dozen high tech companies including another minor aircraft company that is often described as the smarter (non neo jumbo) of the two major commercial aircraft manufacturers today and they provided some neat hydro computational support, but none of it was unique to the industry. Let's never forget that designing an airplane is sandlot compared to one of these sailboats. Sailboat design of this type is off the chart more complex than airplane design. The only time that airplane design had a significant impact in the America's Cup was Scaled Composites' design and construction of the late 1980's winged mast for Dennis Conner's catamaran. if I remember correctly, at that time Dennis actually ended up using the conventional sail rig. That is no knock on Burt Rutan and his company, which I consider to be the pinnacle of aero engineering. It is simply the only example where the Aero industry had any effect on America's Cup design. In my experience it often the other way around.
MichaelCohn
Larry Ellison should be proud of himself for completely ruining the America's Cup to satisfy his ridiculous ego....
Aross
Too much technology for my taste. Bring back the old 12 meter yachts.
Pres
I think it's great that 'they' are advancing the state of the art in sail design. Even a few of those innovations might trickle down to the average sailboat someday. Competition breeds innovation! Cheers to the innovators.
Rjdph
Yes and no. Yes, the boats are pushing the envelope. But the hydraulics mentioned are only now reaching the same pressure as has been used on aircraft for years (5,000 PSI). And the actuators and MEMS are all based on aerospace products in production - never used for America's Cup before OTUSA partnered with several aerospace companies, not just Airbus.
Island Architect
Confined flow Wind Tunnels yield false results because the test is supercharged. That is why non-confined flow tests are vastly superior. That is why Bill Allison hit the Betz limit with his wind engines.