BERMUDA — Oracle Team USA unveiled its 2017 Americas’ Cup racing yacht on Valentine’s Day evening, in Bermuda. Designed in partnership with Airbus, the fifty-foot vessel will carry six crew members and the hopes of the United States in winning its third consecutive America’s Cup.
One might wonder why Airbus chose to get involved in yacht races. After all, they build airplanes. The relationship started at the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco, as Oracle Team USA hosted a group from Airbus, which included sailing enthusiast Pierre-Marie Belleau — Head of Business Development at Airbus. At the 2013 race, Airbus did in fact serve in a supportive role for Oracle Team USA, by assisting in the stability management of the yacht during the race.
Though Belleau couldn’t pinpoint a moment in terms of which team came up with the more involved collaboration we now see, he did say it was probably brought up during a time of camaraderie over beers. He said the application process to join the Americas’ Cup engineering team was highly competitive, and consists of members from Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
Ian “Fresh” Burns, Director of Performance at Oracle Team USA is an eight-time Americas’ Cup participant and two-time winner. He joined Belleau in the presentation, and said that the Airbus – Oracle Team USA partnership is the first large-scale collaboration between an aircraft manufacturer and a sailing team.
Having Airbus onboard gives the team access to technology and research capabilities that would have otherwise been unavailable or too costly. Burns added that Oracle Team USA wanted to work with Airbus because, “We are always looking make partnerships to get the best tech we can outside our team.”
At the 2014 announcement of the partnership, Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Brégier said: “This is a completely new endeavor for us. By taking on an extreme technology and sports project of this magnitude we stretch our competencies and further boost our agility. There are so many similarities between the America’s Cup yacht and our aircraft design, that each partner benefits from an excellent platform not only to learn and grow but also to win.”
Although the Americas’ Cup is the world’s oldest continuously-awarded sporting trophy, sailing has become an entirely new sport in the past decade, because of technology. During his remarks to the media at Bermuda’s Coral Beach Club, Burns said, “The boats we used in 2007 were not that different from the ones Cleopatra sailed down the Nile with. The new technologies are all about lifting the boat out of the water, whereas older yachts were dragged along water by the wind.” Now, wind lifts the boats.
Beginning with the 2010 America’s Cup, Team USA moved to a newly-designed form of boat, propelled by a sail that looks more like an airplane wing than a traditional canvas sail, used for centuries. Beneath the sail is a catamaran hull with hydrofoils, known as daggerboards, which literally lift the yacht out of the water during the race. Only the daggerboards and rudders remain in the water for much of the race. The goad is to keep the yacht above the water as much as possible, because otherwise drag is created, which slows them down.
This years’ America’s Cup yachts will be only 49 feet, 2.55 inches (15 meters) long, known as AC50 class. These have been shortened from the 2013 AC62 class and the 2010 AC72 class. The design committee shortened the yachts again this year in an effort to attract teams from more countries. Theoretically, a shorter yacht would be safer and less expensive to build, but the development costs alone are astronomical.
Over lunch, Burns told us “Onboard the larger boats, crew were working very close to a number of systems — any one of which could kill you if it had broken.” However, Team Luna Rosa of Australia withdrew from this year’s Cup bitterly, following the announcement of the design rule changes, because they had already poured piles of money into their design before the rule change.
The height of the wingsail has also been reduced, to 75 feet (23 meters). Its design is nearly the same for each team, constrained by geometric and area limits. It has a rigid structure, and is shaped similarly to an aircraft wing. The shape of the wing can also be changed during the yachts flight, thanks to a hydraulic structure within the wing, just like that of an aircraft. These yachts do indeed fly, and during the two-day event we heard the term “flight” being used more frequently than “sailing.”
Besides the fact that planes and now boats fly, there are other similarities between some aircraft and these AC50 yachts. The Oracle Team USA yacht is made of a high percentage of carbon fiber composite, just like the A350. It also has a variable geometry wing, like the A350. Its hydraulic system runs at 5,000psi, like the A350.
The seven hydraulic actuators control 7 hydraulic actuators: elevator pitch, wind camber, jib control, and foils (daggerboards). It’s daggerboards are nearly the same shape and structure as the A320 Sharklets. Flight control systems standards from the A350 are also being used on board the yacht. And of course, the design and testing processes between the two are also similar.
Earlier this year, Airbus began providing expertise in the design of a control system. New interface and high level control systems are required to control the yacht’s stability while foiling. Improvements in this area were essential to Oracle Team USA, and as a result, for the first time the boat will be able to fly on foil for 100 percent of the race. In order to achieve that, the teams worked hand in hand to transfer A350 XWB flight control system standards and to adapt them to the boat.
Airbus also provided expertise in 3D printing, for production of lighter & stronger parts integrating more complex geometry in a shorter time, leading to substantial cost reduction. Among other pieces being produced, the forward organizer of the boat was the first one created by using 3D printing.
Airbus also tested the dagger boards in what the team is calling the “Iron Shark” — in the same way they have a stress test rig called the “Iron Bird” for their aircraft. In Hamburg, the structure was put through vibration and static structure tests in order to find a breaking point, just like we see them do during aircraft certification. Airbus contributed their expertise in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to provide support in evaluating the yacht’s aerodynamics.
Tiny aerodynamic pressure sensors known as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) were applied to the wingsail to measure the air pressure at 400 points, to help evaluate the aerodynamics of the sail in various configurations and wind conditions.
The morning after the yacht was revealed, we spoke to Team Oracle USA skipper Jimmy Spithill at the team’s base. Airways asked Spithill about his experience flying an Airbus A350 simulator in Toulouse, and how that correlated into what he does on the yacht.
“I got my pilots’ license in 2010, when we had a big trimaran, and at that stage we were making the decision whether to build a rigid wing rather than a sail, so we built the wing, which remains the biggest wing ever built, including aviation and aerospace. I just figured the best way to understand the wing was to get a pilots’ license.”
“It became apparent really quickly that it’s very similar to sailing. It’s all about lift, drag, balance. In my mind, a well set-up plane is like a well set-up boat. It allows you to look around, but there’s clearly times where you’re really reliant on instrumentation. Although we have a lot of feel and instinct, but with a boat like this and as sophisticated as it is, some numbers you really rely on,” he continued.
“There’s a lot of people in America’s Cup who have pilots’ licenses. Since adding the wing, we’ve taken it a step further. We’re literally flying these boats” Spithill concluded.
Though it may seem like Airbus has given a lot to the Oracle Team USA program — and they have — there have also been some valuable takeaways by Airbus as well. First, Belleau said the Airbus engineers that have worked with Oracle Team USA have helped Airbus come to the realize the value of working with an agile mindset, being adaptable to new ideas, and constantly chasing a new way of working.
Next, the MEMS developed to test the new yacht are now being used on the A350-1000 during flight tests. Finally and more significantly, the testing of the yacht’s daggerboards has led to changes in the wingtip design of the A350, which we will see implemented and retrofit on currently-flying aircraft. Airbus could not give details or a timeline on these new wingtips, but the findings must be pretty significant to warrant a design change.
Before the jet age, so-called flying boats made trans-oceanic travel possible, but the flying boats of the 21st century have taken on a completely different look.