America's Cup boat designers face a Herculean challenge: Not only must they build boats capable of racing at the extreme edge of performance, but the margin for error is razor slim. For ORACLE TEAM USA, data collection and analysis is vital to building a successful America's Cup boat.
"There's no such thing as a trial prototype that you eventually discard for the final model," says Christoph Erbelding, structural design and senior Finite Element Analysis (FEA) analyst with ORACLE TEAM USA. "The boats we build are the ones we race, and Oracle Database is the backbone of the whole design process."
America's Cup teams are allowed to build two boats in a collaborative process between the designers and the sailing team which Erbelding calls the "design spiral". The target is to quickly come up with a concept that balances component strength and stability and promises to be a powerful first boat without exceeding the race's strict weight limits. As a vital part of this work the group populates and uses a store of 3-D information in Oracle Database on various factors from boat geometry to performance info such as wing drag and lift to create a 3-D virtual concept.
"From there, we run 3-D simulations of how this boat would perform, experimenting with design changes to optimize boat speed and flow efficiency as well as boat handling," says Erbelding. "We make alterations based on our results—the whole team feeds information into the database, so it's vital that it keeps information up to date."
"Just-in-time construction gets underway while the design team is still at work, with details sometimes finalized only hours before the information needs to be delivered to the shop floor for construction. It's a battle against time, because we want to pull actual performance data from the first boat as soon as possible to help us learn how to improve the second," says Erbelding.
The jackpot comes when the first boat hits the water and the team can finally start analyzing the data flow from more than 300 sensors embedded in the boat. For example, sensors on the massive sail wing measure everything from strain on the structure to the 3-D shape of the wing sail as it gets trimmed. Erbelding says the data helped them refine the second boat by working with the sailors to compare actual performance data with their performance predictions, especially when it came to verifying assumptions about loads and how they distribute on the components of the boat and wing. "That's one of the biggest educations we had between boat one and two, and it allowed us to adopt our structure to better suit the load picture generated by the actual performance data and hence make the boat lighter but still more reliable," he says.
Although both boats are now under sail, the design process is still underway. "Working with the sailors to get their sense of the performance data is a really fruitful partnership, particularly as they get to know the boat better," says Erbelding. "Designing and enhancing the boats is a constant process—it never really stops, and our success depends on how well we can query and analyze the data we've collected."