Friday Fry Up special: Inside ETNZ’s tech for the America’s Cup

Friday Fry Up is Computerworld New Zealand’s weekly look at the world of IT.

03. etnz flying 3 emirates team new zealand
Emirates Team New Zealand

This week, Emirates Team New Zealand submitted its final boat specs to the America’s Cup officials. Rules rule in this race, and this time around they state that ETNZ and rival Luna Rossa will have very little opportunity to make changes to their boats from here on in.

In the months leading up to the day the Cup begins (as early as next Wednesday if COVID-19 Level 3 restrictions are lifted, and weather conditions comply), ETNZ has relied on a variety of IT and technology initiatives to build the optimum boat. This special edition of Friday Fry Up looks at ETNZ’s latest tech moves.

3D printing keeps the design secrets under wraps

 IT manager Marty Yates, who has been with ETNZ for 10 years (he joined at the start of the San Francisco campaign), says an example is the 3D printer supplied by HP, one of its sponsors. The team was the first to use the JetFusion 580 model in New Zealand. The printer enthusiasts amongst you will be interested to learn that it uses PA-12 nylon, while all of us can appreciate the advantage of creating high-quality boat parts that can be printed overnight as the team continually iterated on its design.

ETNZ is a highly secretive team, its intellectual property is its ace, so being able to print onsite at its headquarters was not only efficient but it also meant not having to share the latest design iteration with an external party and risking a leak (as it were).

HP New Zealand country manager Oliver Hill says for its part the company has learned plenty from ETNZ and will be applying it in future iterations of its own technology. He’s already in discussions with another local company that makes propellers and is “super paranoid” about its intellectual property. As for the actual printers, there are now three in country. Two are being used by a healthcare company (name not disclosed!).

Data-driven design, and a robot sailor

Yates, who is responsible for the land-based IT infrastructure, has also been working on the “telco side of things” so that data can be collected from the boat in real time during every race. While that will assist with sailing on the day, data has also played a huge part in the design.

ETNZ used Quantum Black, McKinsey’s data and analytics business, to create a digital twin—basically an AI bot within a simulator—for use in the design process. They used the branch of AI called reinforcement learning, which was also used by Google’s DeepMind system in its famous Alpha Go chess victory.

“The self-learning system mimics the way humans learn—through trial and error—and this requires lots of experience. To achieve this, we ran up to 1,000 instances of ETNZ’s simulator in parallel in the cloud for the systems to interact and learn from. Once trained, the system could sail the simulator automatically, providing at least a tenfold uplift in the number of designs tested to help the team search for optimal hydrofoil design,” says Tim Fountaine, a senior partner at McKinsey and leader of Quantum Black.

COO Olie Fleming says the company used Amazon Web Services’s SageMaker technology to create the tool during the 18-month project. Apparently, a lot of the magic happens in the foils, so plenty of attention has been paid to that area of the design.

He also points out that the robot turned out be a pretty good sailor and has been a “really nice way for the sailors to learn from the robot”. Yes, we at Fry Up did observe that maybe the sailors should worry about their job security—and Fountaine assured us that robots could never replace them, because it isn’t in the rules.

Quantum Black is also involved in Formula One auto racing, and Fountaine says it likes working for elite sports teams because “they push the boundaries of performance, which pushes us”.

Just as with HP, what Quantum Black has learned from ETNZ will be put into practice when working with clients in the private and public sectors. Fountaine cited robotics, automotive manufacturing, mining, and the pharmaceutical sector as examples of where this technology can be applied. “Any complex process where you have a difficult time defining the control parameters,” he says.

Storage also important in the massive data flow

Finally, Huawei has provided ETNZ’s storage solution. As the team’s official smart device sponsor, it probably hoped for a more high-profile contribution. But, given geopolitical considerations, it has pivoted its New Zealand business from telco (it had been a technology partner for Spark and 2degrees) and consumer products to enterprise IT stalwarts like storage.

“There are gigabytes of information pouring into servers, and this data flow allows ETNZ’s systems to be tested,” spokesperson Eugene Afanasy says. “Harnessing these data points can refine schematics for builders, provide lessons for sailors—and all of this leads to a better chance of winning.”

Here’s to winning. Go ETNZ!

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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