By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2005-09-21 Print this article Print

-of-the-Line Tech Can Win the Race"> The story made headline news, while the boats which were overtaking them received relatively cursory coverage. Gross—but effective PR. And its effective PR that drives these sailors. Oh, not the sailors themselves, but the people who provide the funding. To harvest this publicity, on board each boat is a full video recording, editing, compressing and transmitting system.
It draws a peak current of less than 100 W and can drop into standby in a blink; and yet it can transmit full-screen video of a quality better than typical satellite TV subscribers normally see, at a rate that means you get 20 minutes worth of footage over about 8 hours.
Click here to read about the infrastructure growing pains hitting XM satellite radio. The cost of such connectivity is worth calculating. Were looking at a full ISDN-speed link, charged at a minimum of $6 per megabyte, carrying video which plays back at a megabyte a second. Inmarsat wont reveal exactly how much sponsorship it puts into the Volvo Ocean Race, but nobody is pretending all this video comes free. But frightening though that bill looks, its peanuts compared with what people would spend if they could. This years race, starting in a few weeks, will be completely a walled garden race—if you can call the Southern Ocean any sort of garden. The crew on each boat will be disqualified if they try to access any part of the Internet except the sites provided by the race organizers, and the reason, according to the IT manager of the project, is to stop the biggest wallet from winning. How? Easy: weather forecasts. Last time, all the skippers had access to the weather data provided by the race organizers. But they also had free Web access. The winning boat, Ilbruck, was seen to log onto other weather stations. If you think the bill for this years video publicity is horrifying, have a look at the figures: "In one month, Ilbruck spent 11 hours a day surfing for weather data. They spent $100,000 on Internet access for the purpose of getting an edge on the other boats. Were determined to make the race a more even contest, this year; that simply wont be possible," the Volvo IT chief said. Telematics are important, of course. But most of the telematics on the boats can be handled in low bit-rate blips every 15 minutes. That gets transmitted over the cheapest, slowest Inmarsat service—600 bps—but thats enough to show position, speed, direction, angle of the mast, and so on, for the "Virtual Spectator" service that will let the rest of us watch the boats sailing. (Thats going to be a free download, by the way—but the exact details of how you get it were not available by press time). Telemetry like that can save lives, Bourke said. There was a frightening incident in the last race, as the fleet left Cape Town; just a few hours into the leg, telemetry showed one boat suddenly slowing down from 14 knots, to 12, then 10, then slower still. What was wrong? Headquarters urgently contacted the team. "What had happened was that a hatch had been replaced, and had come off. Water was pouring into the forward bulkhead, taking the bow further and further down, slowing the boat up. When they realised something was wrong, they went below to check the bulkhead, and opened it—and four tons of water poured into the main hull." By the time HQ made contact, the crew were able to report success in pumping the water out, and had temporarily solved the problem of the open hatch ("We sent one guy below into the bulk head to sit there and hold it shut," Bourke said laconically) and family and friends, not to mention sponsors, were rapidly given the good news. And, of course, it made headline news, because there were pictures. Next Page: The "panic button" films the action almost before it happens.


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