Sailing to success

Sailing to success

Ever-widening applications of industrial control technology and smart automation have extended to sailboat racing and started at the top with the America’s Cup. Emirates Team New Zealand, used PC-based control and EtherCAT when defeating Oracle Team USA by a resounding 7 to 1 in a last race across Bermuda's Great Sound, the spectacular ocean inlet opening out to the Atlantic Ocean. In the qualifier event, Emirates Team New Zealand had seen off challenges from Britain, France, Japan and Sweden.

EtherCAT is an Ethernet-based fieldbus system invented by Beckhoff Automation whose control technology proved to be a crucial aid in the race which always comes down to fine margins and sees fast, precise trimming – the process of tuning the hydrofoils and the wing sail’s position and profile to suit wind, course and swell. Helmsman Peter Burling and colleagues benefited from Beckhoff’s PC-based control whereby every function on the race boat could be controlled through a web interface on a tablet device. Fast precise diagnostics and enhanced ability to troubleshoot allowed best use of training and testing sessions on the water and contributed to victory.

It was hardly a standard brief. Emirates Team New Zealand had a number of unusual technical requirements. There was a need for compact, lightweight, high-performance controllers that would be capable of withstanding high temperatures, exceptional moisture and salt levels, vibration and shock.

Outstanding performance in harsh conditions

It was the compact design and lightness of Beckhoff control technology that caught Emirates Team New Zealand’s eye. Dan Bernasconi, the team’s technical director, said: “When racing sailboats made entirely of lightweight composite materials, installing heavy electronic components is counterproductive.” Despite their compact, lightweight construction, the Beckhoff components proved exceptionally reliable in an incredibly tough environment. Electronics engineer Stefano Morosin added: “In spite of the conditions we operate in, not one of the Beckhoff components failed, and they required practically zero maintenance – even after we capsized spectacularly!”

No winches

Emirates Team New Zealand’s boat was the only one in the race not fitted with winches. Instead, all the vessel’s trim surfaces, barring the rudder, were controlled over EtherCAT by a Beckhoff Embedded PC. This resulted in exceptional precision, repeatability (a crucial criterion) and reliability, all of which kept the boat stable, fast and efficient. “A system capable of responding instantaneously to my input was essential for steering the boat,” explained Olympic gold medalist Blair Tuke who was the team’s foil trimmer.

Using PC-based control for the on-board systems opened up many possibilities for Emirates Team New Zealand. Control engineer Ryan Thomas explained: “The fact that we could use any PC software, plus the ease of communication between TwinCAT ADS libraries and the real-time controller – locally and over a network – gave us maximum flexibility when managing the system architecture.”

These were not the only benefits of TwinCAT3-based control. Emirates Team New Zealand had searched everywhere for controllers, sensors and other devices that would meet their exacting expectations. With the wide range of EtherCAT I/O modules, control system-integrated interfaces and gateway bus terminals and box modules from Beckhoff, they achieved all their connectivity and communication requirements. With Beckhoff technology, choosing the best option for a given application was never a problem. Ryan Thomas elaborated: “Using EtherCAT as our central bus system onboard, we achieved extremely fast response times and could integrate any number of other devices via gateways. When you’re not limited by communication protocols, your options expand enormously.”

The large quantities of data to be processed from position and pressure sensors, anemometers and other sources, plus the navigation calculations and the racing software all called for an exceptionally fast computer. A CX5140 Embedded PC with an Intel® Atom™ quad-core processor delivered the requisite computing power by making optimum use of all four of its CPU cores. The compact, lightweight design also made the PC ideal for this unusual application.

Advanced diagnostics on board

Maximizing practice time spent on the water is essential to any successful America’s Cup bid, so fast, accurate diagnostics and troubleshooting were crucial for the optimum amount of live training and testing on the actual boat. The diagnostic capabilities of EtherCAT and corresponding tools in TwinCAT 3 detected potential problems quickly – sometimes even before the boat’s crew spotted them. Stefano Morosin described the conditions: “In this harsh wet environment, connectors usually develop faults over time due to water ingress and gradual corrosion. The ability to identify early on where this was likely to happen allowed us the greatest possible amount of productive time on the water and helped to avoid situations that could harm the boat.”

 Shore crew and support engineers needed a portable solution with an intuitive user interface to maintain the mechanical and hydraulic systems. Through the web-based HMI options provided by TwinCAT, every function implemented on the race boat could be controlled through a web interface on a tablet device – the ideal portable control unit for maintenance tasks.

Looking ahead to the 36th America’s Cup

After winning the 35th America’s Cup, the pressure is on for the NZ team to successfully defend its title especially since it will host the race’s 36th staging in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2021. Each race team will use a Beckhoff PLC to control its hydrofoil cant system via EtherCAT. Emirates Team New Zealand has welcomed Beckhoff as an official supplier and is looking forward to using the company’s PC-based control architecture to redefine performance boundaries of high-speed boat racing.


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