The 35th America’s Cup will be held in Bermuda next year. Back in 2014, Airbus entered an innovation partnership with defending champions ORACLE TEAM USA to apply its expertise to boat design. Working with the startup-like agility of the two-time Cup winners has been a defining experience for Airbus employees and now another sailing team is set to benefit.
Airbus and the ORACLE TEAM USA
The idea behind the ORACLE TEAM USA and Airbus Innovation Partnership is simple. Airbus shares its engineering know-how and in return it benefits from new innovations, agile ways of working and the publicity a well-known sporting event brings.
Under the terms of the America’s Cup Protocol, challengers such as SoftBank Team Japan (STJ) are able to purchase a basic design package to build some components of their boat faster without incurring the cost of a large design team and lengthy development cycles. For STJ, licencing ORACLE TEAM USA designs brings access to Airbus expertise. It also represents an opportunity to raise sailing’s profile in Japan.
Go with your gut
The timing is good: in November, a Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series race is taking place in Fukuoka. It’s the first time sport’s oldest trophy has held races in Asia. “We are pleased to be associated with SoftBank Team Japan thanks to our activities with ORACLE TEAM USA,” says Pierre-Marie Belleau, head of business development and in charge of the project at Airbus. “The ideas of experts from different horizons and cultures are a great source of innovation.”
SoftBank Team Japan skipper and CEO Dean Barker, a 20-year veteran of the America’s Cup, agrees Airbus has brought a new approach to the way a team tackles design issues. Aerospace has introduced unorthodox construction and data analysis techniques but, as Barker says, it’s a two-way street.
Airbus engineers have taken away ideas too. “As such a small team we have to be able to respond instantly to problems,” Barker explains. “Trusting your gut feeling is something I hope your guys have learnt from the partnerships.”
SoftBank Team Japan was built from the ground up since its creation in 2015. Japan has only competed for the trophy three times previously and Barker’s team is the first to fly the nation’s flag since 2000. “In a race where tech makes the difference, we’re excited to be representing a country which has been at the forefront of technological progress for so long,” he says. “It’s well-suited to what we’re doing.”
The partnerships forged hinge on similarities between sailing and flying. Powered by a 20m-tall wingsail, America’s Cup Class catamarans glide above the water on hydrofoils, lift-generating surfaces that run beneath the craft’s hulls. Their carbon-fibre design employs similar aerodynamics and structural loading calculations as wings on Airbus aircraft and Sharklet wingtip devices.
Fail fast, move on
We’re working in ‘fail fast and move on’ mode, testing new ideas on the water just as we would on a test aircraft.
Sailing and aviation face the challenge of being better, faster and lighter. Airbus and ORACLE TEAM USA are developing innovations that are useful for yachts but that can be adapted for aircraft. “Sailing and aircraft fans have the same soul,” Belleau says. “Here we’re working in ‘fail fast and move on’ mode, testing new ideas on the water just as we would on a test aircraft. For example, Airbus engineers have been investigating a potential new design and manufacturing process for the yacht’s foil that could be applied to wingtips.
ORACLE TEAM USA and SoftBank Team Japan attempt to sail as much as possible in Bermuda to put their prototype AC class test boats through their paces in a rapid and merciless test process. Designs that have been worked on for months but don’t deliver on the water are immediately dropped, so focused is the team on optimising performance within the short timeframe. That immediacy is something Airbus is looking to replicate in its own culture.
The 2017 America’s Cup is organised in three stages. The first is the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series: fleet races between the six teams in identical one-design boats. The second stage takes place in Bermuda and is divided between qualifiers and the play-offs that will determine the eventual challenger who will face ORACLE TEAM USA in the finals, the third phase held in June 2017. All of the racing in 2017 is one-on-one match racing, in contrast to the fleet racing in 2015 and 2016.
With help from Airbus, ORACLE TEAM USA and SoftBank Team Japan are racing for the finals. “My dream would be that SoftBank Team Japan takes the Challenger Series,” Belleau laughs. “We’d have an America’s Cup Final competition between the two boats that have Airbus know-how on board.” That would be a true win-win situation.
Airbus in Japan
Airbus has a relationship with Japan that goes back more than 50 years. The company has recently enjoyed increased success in this strategic market, adding Japan Airlines to its customer base and receiving new orders from ANA, including for the A380. Meanwhile, the A320 Family is now firmly established as the preferred choice of Japan’s low-cost airlines.
Airbus Helicopters’ civil and parapublic customers include the Ministry of Defence and the Japan Coast Guard, and the Group operates a helicopter support facility in Kobe City with the only full-flight helicopter simulator in Japan. Airbus Defence and Space have also created strong ties with Japanese companies, building a portfolio of solutions for Japan’s future. More than 20 major Japanese companies supply parts for Airbus and Airbus aircraft, valued at about $1 billion per year.
Airbus partners with Japanese research centres and universities whose leading-edge R&T portfolios help us develop disruptive digital technologies, including advanced batteries, e-aircraft, humanoid robot technology, new materials, artificial intelligence, data mining and the Internet of Things.