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Technology at the helm in the Volvo Ocean Race

Predictive analytics, pervasive communications, and intelligent systems played a key role in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, as crews dealt with wind, waves, the unpredictability of nature, and personal privacy compliance.

Technology has always played an important role in the race: tracking the boats via satellite and the internet, maintaining communications with crews, and in the design of the boats. This year, however, each boat was equipped with a range of sensing, telemetry, and even advanced simulation systems that are used to analyze water and wind conditions and provide predictive analysis to the crew in an environment that is anything but predictable.

The environmental data collected by each of the boats is also analyzed from a sustainability perspective as part of a program funded by Volvo in partnership with the UN Environment Clean Seas campaignCalled the Volvo Ocean Race Science Programme, the objective of the effort is to gauge the health of the world’s oceans, which are impacted by both natural and human elements, such as pollution. One finding thus far: The spread of microplastics, mostly from throwaway plastic bottles and bottle caps, is far more prevalent than expected, extending into Antarctic waters and reaching one of the farthest ocean points on earth — Point Nemo in the Southern Ocean.

Given the extremely harsh conditions at sea, as well as the high cost of satellite transmissions, the on-board systems are also equipped with intelligence and optimization software that can decide what data is important at the time and when it makes most sense to analyze or transmit just the data that has changed to another location.

The multiple and redundant on-board systems are housed in cramped quarters on each of the boats, along with navigations and video and audio broadcast systems that tie into multiple antennae and satellite communications arrays that are situated just behind the helm on deck. In fact, one antenna is so powerful that crew members are restricted from getting close to it when operating due to the radiation danger. 

“In the past, we used to have a back-end running day and night to calculate all this this. But when something happened, it wasn’t quick enough,” explains Jordi Neves, chief digital officer at the Volvo Ocean Race. “We needed to get an alert coming straight from the boat telling us when something is happening. This information feeds into libraries of historical and current information to alert the crews to potentially difficult situations, allowing them time to take action to get a competitive edge or avoid potentially life-threatening scenarios.

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