It's the direct link between Sir Ben Ainslie and the boat built to bring the America's Cup home; the steering wheel that Ainslie will be holding as he strives to drive Land Rover BAR's America's Cup Class boat to success this summer in Bermuda. And the wheel is a direct result of a long partnership with the team's title and exclusive innovation partner, Land Rover. This remarkable piece of technology has been in development for the past 18 months within the Technical Innovation Group (TIG), chaired by the management and technology consultancy PA Consulting Group, and is now being revealed ahead of the start of racing on 26th May.
The control of an America's Cup Class foiling multihull is a two-dimensional problem. The wheel doesn't just turn the boat left and right as it would do on a conventional boat, but it also controls the boat's height and attitude above the water, through control of the power delivered from the hydrofoils.
The hydrofoil does what it says on the tin – hydro-foil – a foil in water. Just like the aerofoil – the wings that lift planes into the air – the hydrofoils deliver lift, in this case, they push the boat up and out of the water.
So the steering wheel must allow Ainslie to both steer the boat, and control the hydrofoils so he can 'fly' the boat fast and smooth above the water. It's a bit like tapping your head and rubbing your tummy. There are two sets of controls to keep the boat on the right track both horizontally and vertically; left and right, up and down. The left and right part was straight-forward, that's what the steering wheel does. It was the up and down that needed creativity, innovation and cool technology.
The Human Machine Interface (or HMI) is an area in which Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) have considerable experience, technical expertise and a reputation for innovation in their cars – as anyone who has driven the latest Discovery will know. No one with an interest in safety wants to take their eyes off the road for any longer than they absolutely have to, and good HMI can allow you to complete a task without looking, with the minimum of mental effort.
Ben Ainslie required exactly the same of the hydrofoil control on the wheel of the ACC boat. There were many possible ways it could be done; from switches to dials, gear shifts to twist grips. Some could be quickly discarded, others were tried, developed, prototyped for testing and simulation. The best of the ideas went forward with working prototypes built that could be tested on the boat. Of these, there was a clear winner – the paddle shift.
The analogy with the paddle gear shift on a performance car is a good one. The hydrofoil needs to be adjusted in steps as the boat accelerates and decelerates, just as you would change gears in a car as you accelerate or decelerate. Go faster, tap towards you; go slower, tap away from you, each shift attuned to the demand for the optimum performance of the boat, just as a car driver seeks to match the gear to the speed and engine revs for maximum efficiency