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Boats that fly

It’s a boat, but it’s flying - how can it be? The answer is engineering: the principles that keep a plane in the air are now being used to propel a boat across and above the water in the most efficient manner possible. Right now, the race is on to build the perfect sailing machine ahead of the America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017 – a race that can only be won by combining exceptional sportsmanship with world class engineering.

Airbus is working closely with ORACLE TEAM USA as the squad of inter- national sailors prepares to defend their title at the America’s Cup. This is one of the most challenging sporting competitions in the world, and building boats that appear to fly above the water calls for an ingenious combination of engineering expertise. But how does it work? ORACLE TEAM USA will compete with a vessel with a 20-metre-tall wing sail and a carbon composite skeleton, driven by many of the same qualities that make a plane fly through the air.

The Foils

At high speed, the foils underneath the boat act very much like airplane wings, lifting the boat out of the water and reducing hull drag. Perfecting these foils is a key focus for the America’s Cup teams, as they put the finishing touches on their race boats.

The shape of these foils defines the speed and performance of the boat. A racing boat foil is very similar in shape and composition to an A320 Sharklet - that’s the airplane’s wing tip. This is why two component tests were performed on the foils at Airbus’ Hamburg facility, to ensure they met requirements for rigidity and strength.

Aerodynamics / CFD

Xavier Pol, Flight Control Actuation Group Engineer at Airbus, is bringing his expertise in flight control systems to the design of the new ORACLE TEAM USA vessel. “There are a lot of similarities between this boat and an aircraft. The foil on this boat is exactly like the wing of an aircraft. It allows the boat to go above the water exactly like a wing allows us to fly, says Pol. He adds that since accurate control systems are vital for a stable flight, similar controls are also required to sail the boat.

As ORACLE TEAM USA works to improve its yacht aerodynamics, Airbus has contributed significant expertise in Computational Fluid Dynamics. On aircraft, reducing drag leads to lower fuel burn and increased range, as well as improved overall performance. A sailing simulator, similar to a flight simulator, is used to test out the various options at the design stage. This means each element, from hulls and beams to the physical positioning of the crew, can be tested for optimal aerodynamics. Pressure Sensors (aka Micro Electronics Measurement Sensors) have also been used to provide information about airflow across the wing, vital data that can be used to optimize performance for a range of sailing conditions. Airbus 3D hi-tech printing support is also used, ensuring different key elements aremade accurately and quickly at much lighter weight.

Always Learning

Supercomputers are constantly crunching the huge amount of data generated by the ORACLE TEAM USA yachts during training in Bermuda. The results are used to further optimise the design, help inform decisions on materials, and drive the boat as close to perfection as possible.

“The America’s Cup is always about learning, and who can out-learn the other teams. But the evolution and the education [this time] has really been one of the most rewarding I can remember,” says Jimmy Spithill, Skipper of ORACLE TEAM USA. “I think the crew now are test pilots. The boats are heavily undermanned; they are very very powerful, yet they are human powered. ... It really is about trying to put all the pieces into play.”

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