Humans only: Cyborgs sidelined for America’s Cup

Although it’s a race of technology, Team New Zealand have taken steps to stop robots sailing in the next America’s Cup, and to give more power to the humans on board. Suzanne McFadden reports.

There’s a curious clause in the new class rule for the AC75 boat to be sailed in the next America’s Cup. It reads: “There shall be eleven crew members, unless reduced by accident, who shall all be human beings."

Emirates Team New Zealand’s technical director, Dan Bernasconi, chuckles at its mention. “It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek”, he says.

“But you never know. People are always looking for the last bit of performance to get out of the boat. Whether anyone would turn up with a crew full of androids, who would know?” he says.

From a team that came up with “cyclors” in the last Cup, they certainly didn't think it would be so out-of-this-world for someone to invent cyborgs for the next.

Those are the kind of outside-the-square notions that Team NZ has had to think of when devising the document that defines how the new foiling monohull is built, and who will sail it, in the 2021 America’s Cup.

It took a global team four painstaking months to come up with the constraints around the AC75 yacht. They literally worked around the clock: when Bernasconi’s team tagged out in Auckland around 9pm each night, Luna Rossa’s designers in Italy tagged in, doing their bit to help create the rule.

Although it’s clearly a sporting event driven by technology, Bernasconi says they’ve tried to put more weight back onto human skills required to sail the boat.

“We’re really keen to make sure it stays a sailing sport and that the boats aren’t all driven by computers. So we’ve actually pulled back quite a bit on this rule, and put in a lot of constraints to make sure you aren’t allowed any kind of autopilot,” he says.

In the last Cup, he says, most teams would have experimented with autopilots to self-steer the catamarans. “It wasn’t permitted in the rules, but it was a good way to learn how you may be able to sail the boat optimally,” he says.

Cyclors, like robots, are forbidden in this edition of the Cup. There’s a rule ensuring that the jib is controlled with conventional winches powered by hands, not hydraulics.

“We wanted a bit more of a connection to the kind of sailing that most sailors in the sport are involved with,” Bernasconi says.

Artificial Intelligence will, however, play a vital role in Team NZ’s defence bid.

In the 2017 America Cup campaign, the Kiwis placed “huge value” on simulation, sailing the boat virtually on a huge computer screen without it touching the water. British-born Bernasconi brought the idea from his six-year career working as a vehicle dynamics engineer with the McLaren Formula One Racing team.

“Yes it’s good to get the boat out on the water, but the bulk of our design is done through simulation and optimising on a virtual boat, rather than in reality,” he says.

The daggerboards take so long to build, and you’re limited in your resources, that you can’t afford to go through a huge number of iterations of real parts, some of which work and some that don’t.

“The other great thing about it, is that it gets the sailors involved in the design process. Most of the designers here aren’t that good at driving the simulator. So you get the sailors involved right from the beginning, and then they understand the trade-offs of foil shapes and section shapes much better. And I think that leads to a much better boat.”

In the last Cup, Bernasconi would have three sailors on the sailing simulator. Helmsman Peter Burling would be holding a real steering wheel in front of a huge screen, with Blair Tuke manoeuvring the controls for the foils, and skipper Glenn Ashby moving the wing with an X-box controller – a gadget that transferred to the real boat and became known as Team NZ’s ‘secret weapon’.

“It meant that the first day out on the water, the X-box controller was already second nature to Glenn,” says Bernasconi, who admits they first experimented with a larger digger controller.

Even though parts of the boat will be supplied to teams to cut costs (foil arms, rigging and the cant system), and others, like the mast tube, are one-design, Bernasconi maintains there is still plenty of scope for innovation in sailing this radical monohull.

Teams will design their own hulls this time, where in Bermuda, the cat’s hulls were one-design. The new soft-wing mainsail gives sail designers more latitude.

This is the stage of the campaign that defender Team NZ – and the three challengers we publicly know of –  now find themselves in.

Bernasconi, who enjoys this phase the most, calls it the true beginning of a campaign – where the design boundaries have been laid out, and the innovation that pushes those boundaries begins.

“Now you have a clean sheet, and it’s time to develop the tools and think about how you’re going to design and optimise the boat. You’ve got the opportunity to come up with a whole range of different ideas, to sit around the table and discuss options - without the immediate threat of boatbuilders coming in, demanding drawings and saying that we’re late giving them their designs,” he laughs.

Designing the AC75 will place more focus on fluid dynamics, hydrodynamics and aerodynamics than in the previous Cup, when the emphasis was on the foils and control systems.

Where we will see the real innovation in these boats isn’t so obvious, Bernasconi believes.

“They are foiling boats, and there will be quite a lot of performance to be had on getting the boat up on the foils early. So the hull shape is going to be quite relevant,” he says. “The foils are still important, but the shape of your sails, how you organise your deck, and the control systems are also open to innovation. I think you will have to get it right in all of those things, and put together a good package.”

Bernasconi doesn’t think Team NZ and Luna Rossa, the Challenger of Record, will have a head start on their competitors having drawn up the class rule.

“Sure we knew earlier what the parameters were going to be. But on the other side of the coin, it’s really hard to switch off from what you meant the rule to be, to actually reading the words on the page and seeing how you can almost exploit the rule,” he says. “Other teams looking at the rule with fresh eyes will probably pick up things that are quite difficult for us to spot.”

Inside Team NZ’s base on Auckland’s Beaumont Street – not far from where the new America’s Cup village will be built – around two dozen designers are already working fulltime on the design of the defenders’ first boat of two. There's another deadline to meet; the first boats can be launched on March 31 next year.

But there are still vacancies for talented young engineers in the team. Gaps have been left by the departure of the handful of Luna Rossa engineers who were “lent” to Team NZ for the last Cup.

“They were a really good bunch of guys, who are hard to replace, but that’s one of my main jobs at the moment,” Bernasconi says. “We’re looking for young graduates, guys and girls, who have done really well in mechanical, electrical, and hydraulics engineering, and data science. We already have quite a lot of experience in the team, so we want to bring some new young people in.”

Since the class rule was released to the world at the end of last month, some potential challengers have renewed contact with Team NZ, says Bernasconi.

“They’re asking for more information about various aspects of the rule and the protocol. There are a number of potential teams out there, but we will have to wait and see how many of them make it to the start-line,” he says.

For a few days last week, Bernasconi felt the weight of the America’s Cup lift slightly from his shoulders.

There were days when we went home at 5.30pm rather than 9pm,” he says.

But this week, it has ramped up again. There's a lot of work to do, and a lot of pressure to get it right. “It’s such a radical boat. It’s not just about us as a team doing well, but you also feel a lot of ownership of the concept of the boat and obviously you want that to be a success. “So it’s a good kind of pressure that I’m excited about it. No two days are the same. It’s a fascinating thing to be part of.”

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