America's Cup: How Britain's boat benefits from appliance of science

Story highlights

  • Artificial intelligence boosts trophy bid
  • British team leads World Series
  • Skipper Ainslie hails "game-changer"
  • Process brings in 16GB of data daily

(CNN)It seems like a tricky challenge -- how do you make a state-of-the-art America's Cup yacht sail even faster and work even better?

Ben Ainslie has already enlisted British royalty to help with his £80 million ($105 million) bid to give the UK its first victory in the 165-year-old race, but his Land Rover BAR team also has another secret weapon: Artificial intelligence (AI).
    AI -- computer wizardry performing tasks that would normally need human intelligence, such as translating from one language to another -- enables vast amounts of data on all aspects of the high-speed catamaran's performance to be analyzed instantly.
    It means the team's specialists can detect patterns that humans can't, and react by making tweaks to the way in which parts of the boat are built.
    "Artificial intelligence gives us a very clear picture of what is going on, and is a massive step forward," engineer Mauricio Munoz told CNN.
    "It improves how we look at data and means we can test the performance of different components and make decisions based on that."
    Hi-tech performance analysis helped skipper Ainslie -- who described it as a "game-changer" -- and his crew to victory at last month's World Series in Portsmouth, southern England, as they sailed to the top of the leaderboard.
    BAR held on for second place in the final race of the 2015-16 series' seventh stage, after reigning America's Cup champion Oracle Team USA had pushed the home favorite all the way.

    So how does the AI approach to sailing work?

    Three test vessels -- each equipped with 1,000 sensors -- monitor hundreds of performance patterns, working out everything from boat and wind speeds to the structural loads placed on even the smallest individual parts.
    The process, which brings in 16 gigabytes of data a day, will result in the construction of the most finely-honed race boat possible for the 2017 Louis Vuitton Challenger Series in Bermuda, with the launch due this December.
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    Munoz previously worked on Land Rover's self-learning car project, which embraces similar technology to mold a car's operation to its driver's personal preferences.
    He had no previous experience of sailing -- "I had hardly heard of the America's Cup," the 27-year-old admits -- but he and his team are relishing the challenge of helping provide a craft in a class of its own.
    "You have a fantastic boat that is operating in a very challenging environment," he says. "We want to get a clear picture of everything about its performance.
    "The open water changes all the time -- speed and wind are constantly changing -- so all the information we can gather about how the boat responds is immensely valuable to the design and sailing teams.
    "The focus is not so much on whether a pattern of performance is there -- it is more on what is causing the pattern."
    Different plans and schedules for each test boat mean engineers "can change one thing at a time and then understand and analyze those changes," Munoz says.
    "The impact of the findings is not direct in the sense that they bring an immediate change," he adds. "Instead, the analysis has an impact on how components are designed.
    "We are still understanding the boat's performance -- but we know we can make gains of one or two knots."
    Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, patron of Ainslie's 1851 Trust, opened the "Tech Deck" Education Center at the team's Portsmouth base in May.
    Learning has been a big part of Ainslie's goals. His 1851 Trust charity -- for which Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is patron -- introduces children to sailing and encourages them to study science, technology, maths and engineering.
    The team's cutting-edge approach, Munoz admits, could be seen as being at odds with sailing's traditional image -- but he stresses that the process is collaborative at every stage.
    "The sailing team, the analysis team and the design team discuss developments, the design team design new parts and then the sailing team test them on the water and give their feedback," he says.
    "We can translate what feels good to those sailing the boat to numbers, and that gives the designers direction in assessing the boat's performance."
    The America's Cup, Munoz says, is essentially "a design race" that showcases the latest and best in sailing innovation, design and engineering -- a tradition into which the use of AI fits nicely.
    But he knows who should get the lion's share of the praise if sailing's premier trophy finds its way to Britain for the first time since its 1851 inception: Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, and his men.
    "At the end of the day, it's about 50-50 -- the sailors and the boat. We make sure they have the best 50% we can give them," Munoz says.
    "But if they win the America's Cup, the first in line for the credit will be the sailors.
    "They are the best in the world. The physical and mental endurance of what they do is huge -- it is inspiring to watch."
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    And what of the future?

    Munoz believes technology in sailing will continue to develop at breakneck speed and hopes to remain involved as it does.
    "The rate of advance is in keeping with the way I like to do things, and this sort of research will keep on growing," he says.
    "The development cycle is just so quick -- and who knows what will be happening by the time of the next America's Cup?"