In the next Volvo Ocean Race, digital technology will play a crucial role
The line between competitive sailing and cutting-edge technology is growing increasingly blurred. That’s been true with respect to boat design for decades, but now this is especially true for the sport itself. In fact, one of the key decisions we’ve had to make while organizing the Volvo Ocean Race this season is how to use technology in a way that makes the event fair and exciting.
In boat design, the aero and hydro-dynamics are so advanced that we measure gains in small fractions of a knot, but technology applied to data modeling and navigation assistance is moving much faster. During the last race in 2014-2015, we began to think of the potential of using artificial intelligence (AI) and to be more precise, machine learning to assist navigation and tactics. Three years later, what sounded like science fiction back then is entirely possible now. Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and easy access to massive computing power have resulted in significant progress. In fact, we’ve been approached by some well-known technology firms to explore the possibility of self-navigating boats.
In order to keep the Volvo Ocean Race as fair as possible, we implemented a rule that the crew will have no direct connectivity with the outside world. All communication, content, emails, phone conversations, pictures, and video will land at Race Control, our race and digital command center in Alicante, via a direct link with a private satellite network provided by our partner, Inmarsat. Beyond that, all boats are required to carry the same amount of computer processing hardware and have access to the same weather models and fleet information. We don’t want teams to be building their Big Data centers, running all kinds of simulations and telling their navigator the choices to be made!
Telling the story from the middle of the ocean and making sure that the event is as exciting as possible for the spectator is another area where digital technology is pushing the boundaries.
This time around, each boat will be equipped with seven fixed cameras, three wireless cameras, several microphones, drones, and sensors that can track up to 134 variables. All the equipment has been designed to withstand brutal conditions during the nine-month, 45,000 nautical mile race – not only temperature, humidity, and water pressure but constant vibrations, G-forces, and salt. We’ve tested it all, of course, but the ultimate test will be the race itself.
Three years ago, we sent about 80 terabytes of live video and content over satellite and downloaded 900 terabytes when the boats were back to shore. This time around, I expect we’ll be sending roughly 100 terabytes and as many as 1.5 petabytes from the shore, live over satellite. And that’s just data from the boats – our race management systems and content factory generate another 14 petabytes. To put this into perspective, when I first got involved in competitive sailing events, as CTO for the America’s Cup in 2004, we generated a bit more than one petabyte within three years of the competition.
Managing these data streams and distributing content, during Volvo Ocean Race to different media channels is an increasingly complex job. Apart from the three to five people in Race Control, another 100 people will be packaging the content or working on the data and communications infrastructure. Fortunately, we’ve partnered with HCL Technologies to support us here in Alicante, and at our 12 racing villages around the world. I’m confident that we’ll sail through whatever challenges that may arise. With the right crew, everything is possible!
Jordi Neves is the Chief Digital Officer at Volvo Ocean Race. Volvo Ocean Race is the world's toughest race covering 45,000 nautical miles across four oceans, six continents and 12 landmark host cities. HCL Tech is the Official IT Services Provider to Volvo Ocean Race supporting the 2017-18 edition of the race. To know more about the HCL-Volvo Ocean Race partnership, click here.