Sun is off to the races

Not too many technology events require attendees to wear earplugs. The Grand Prix Formula One car race, held recently in Montreal, was an exception.

The West McLaren F1 racing team has had a technology partnership with Sun Microsystems Inc. for several years, but the past year was the first time the motor company has used Sun’s Java technology in its garage and pit-wall systems.

During testing and in the races themselves, the West McLaren Mercedes race car isn’t just doing laps physically, it is also going through a “data lap” each time it passes the pit wall, said Peter Burns, head of partner programmes for Surrey, England-based Tag McLaren Marketing Services Ltd.

According to Burns, there are more than 100 sensors on the car itself, which measure data such as temperatures, pressures, speeds, velocities, air-flow and wear-and-tear. These are recorded, figures are generated and then sent to the on-board computer.

“We are the victims of almost too much information,” Burns said.

While all this is going on, the data is constantly transmitted to the garage via radio frequencies, Burns said. The information is modulated into a radio wave and sent to the receiver, which can be up to two miles away. Once the garage receives the signal, the information is then demodulated back into the original digital data.

Also, when the car goes past the pit lane at the end of every lap, a line-of-sight microwave data connection is made between the car and a series of Sun Workstations, nicknamed “battlestations, in the garage,” where about 2MB of information is transmitted in less than a second. This ensures that any gaps left from data that may have failed to arrive by radio signal are filled.

Java comes in during the analysis phase, where the numbers are crunched and modified using a new browser-based interface.

“[This technology] provides as much understanding as possible as to what the cars are actually doing,” Burns said. “Track conditions can change an awful lot.”

Java was chosen for the job because of its flexibility, ease-of-use and stability, he said.

“We’re trying to put the information in an easy-to-understand front end. [Engineers] who know mechanical techniques have to have an ease of understanding and be able to make quick decisions. Races are won and lost in a fraction of a second.”

The data is used to see how the cars behave under various conditions, and the auto-maker is constantly modifying the designs as a result. The cars racing today are completely different than the ones that will hit the track next year, he said.

The design end of the process also uses Sun workstations. The data gathered from the racing and testing is analysed using a technology called computational fluid dynamics, which is used to improve the aerodynamic performance of the cars. The workstations run specialized software used to modify the car’s design, which consist of about 4,000 separate drawings, he added.

According to Richard Jacklin, McLaren pre-sales consultant for Sun Microsystems in Farnsborough, England, the Sun battlestations are the heart of the data gathering every time a car goes through the pit lane.

“When the data is gathered it is also transferred live to the McLaren base (in England) where it is used to analyse the race. Drivers (looking at the data) can say ‘I was in third gear on that corner, you were in second on that corner’ and [engineers] can use the information historically and display it in graphs using what-if analysis,” he said. “And because it runs in Java, it can run anywhere.”

Prior to this year, the pit wall application had been written in C, which the race engineers found “difficult to manipulate and maintain,” he said. “This is a new feel for them – it’s platform-independent.”

Currently race engineers are using and manipulating the data on workstations, PCs or notebook computers. Jacklin said there are future plans in the works to expand the use of this technology to wireless devices, such as PDAs and WAP phones, in order to offer even more flexibility to the engineers.