In our never-ending quest to go faster and farther, we humans have always liked the tidiness of round numbers. The ultimate speed and endurance test of yesteryear was to run a mile in under 4 minutes, a feat first achieved by Roger Bannister in 1954. Today it’s a sub-2-hour marathon, once considered impossible but now within reach thanks to advances in conditioning, diet, and running gear.
Advances in engineered systems have allowed humans to conquer a different set of round numbers, like flying an aircraft faster than the speed of sound (Chuck Yeager, 1947) and taking a manned spacecraft to the moon and back (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, 1969).
Now comes the next great “moonshot” quest: driving a land vehicle faster than 1,000 miles per hour. That’s four times the top speed of a Formula One race car and literally faster than a speeding bullet.
A UK-based team led by Richard Noble—having set what is still the world land speed record on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1997, with a vehicle traveling at an average supersonic speed of 763 mph—is now going after the 1,000-mph mark as part of a global, data-intensive effort known as The Bloodhound Project.
The project’s broader, socioeconomic goal since its inception nine years ago: Inspire a new generation of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, just as the Apollo missions did in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
To that end, The Bloodhound Project is sharing all of its car and other data on its encyclopedic website, making it consumable by the general public worldwide. And at the behest of teachers they consulted early in the process, project organizers are also sharing that data directly with UK primary and other schools, for use in coursework. Project organizers estimate that in 2016 more than 129,000 students in the UK had face-to-face access to a variety of instruction materials related to the project’s data feeds. The Bloodhound Project is now considered the country’s largest STEM education program.
The project is in a unique position to get youngsters enthused about science, technology, engineering, and math because it links those rigorous and often intimidating subjects to the excitement of sport and competition. And unlike the national defense and race car industries, it’s not restricted from opening its reams of data to a mass audience, Noble notes.
“It took us a long time to realize that the teachers had given us a unique selling proposition,” he says. “A lot of countries have the same problem as Britain, which is a shortage of STEM-educated people. It’s become a mega-, mega-problem. But now we’ve got something that appears to be working.”
On to the Desert
That student base of 129,000 is expected to expand considerably once The Bloodhound Project gets its SSC (supersonic car) out of the lab and onto a track in Newquay, England, this coming October, for initial test runs at about 200 mph.
The plan is to then begin the record-breaking attempts on the Hakskeen Pan, a mud and salt flat in Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, in the second half of next year. The team’s goal is to exceed an average speed of 800 mph later that year, followed by the 1,000-mph milestone (about 3.6 miles per second) sometime in 2019. Each successive attempt will incorporate lessons learned thanks to the scads of data collected from previous attempts.
The Bloodhound Project announced on July 26 that it’s partnering with Oracle to collect, store, and analyze Hakskeen course, weather, and location data, as well as data from sensors attached to more than 550 components in its SSC. That vehicle data will also be distributed in real time to classrooms and other parties worldwide as the vehicle begins its desert runs.
“It essentially becomes a formidable online education game—but, of course, with a real car and a real driver and a real desert and a real team,” Noble says. “We want students to feel they are right there with us as we chase 1,000 mph, and by working with Oracle we’ll be able to deliver on that promise.”
Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence
The data analysis the Bloodhound team performs, using Oracle Bare Metal Cloud Services, will also inform ongoing car design and engineering decisions (see video below). With a real-time view into how the car’s components are performing, the team will be able to quickly spot and address any technical issues and make improvements as it builds toward the 1,000-mph run. Oracle cloud software will also render data visualizations that let educators and others mash up and repackage the data in easily digestible ways.
“Where it gets really interesting is when we can start using things like virtual reality to let students, educators, and team members immerse themselves in data that’s never been seen before,” says John Abel, Oracle’s Bloodhound project lead. “The idea is for students to put a VR headset on and walk up to a car at a thousand miles per hour and pop the back panel off and see the data flow out. And then they can start seeing how a vibration sensor, for example, is generating data at different speeds.”
Oracle is also applying artificial intelligence to determine whether the team’s engineering and design simulation models are holding true. “And we’re using machine learning because we want the actual machine to learn after each run, so it’s predicting the outcome before the engineers get there,” Abel says. “It’s like a view of the future.”
Design, Engineering Marvel
The SSC itself, almost 45 feet long and weighing over 7 tons, is a design and engineering marvel, a mix of car and aircraft technology. The front section is a carbon fiber monocoque cell design (like a racing car) and the back section consists of a metallic framework and panels (like an aircraft). Its two front wheels sit within the body and its two rear wheels are mounted externally.
The vehicle, the product so far of an estimated 110 person years of design and manufacturing work, already has undergone at least 10 design evolutions since October of last year, according to the project’s website. Both a jet engine (modified Eurojet EJ200) and rocket will power the SSC during different stages of its runs, producing more than 135,000 horsepower and generating more than 20 tons of thrust.
The vehicle’s driver—British Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green, who was behind the wheel for the 1997 record-setting run—is expected to experience about 2.5G forces during acceleration and 3Gs during deceleration over Hakskeen’s rough surface.
The Bloodhound SSC must meet the requirements of a “land vehicle,” defined as one “propelled by its own means in constant contact with the ground (or ice), either directly by mechanical means or indirectly by ground effect, and the motive power and steering system of which are constantly and entirely controlled by a driver on board the vehicle.” The use of moveable aerodynamic devices is permitted, similar to the wingsail on an America’s Cup sailing machine.
“It’s an enormous undertaking, and it’s incredibly exciting,” Noble says. “We’ve learned a lot over the years, and we’re ready to take this project to the end goal.”
Rob Preston is editorial director in Oracle’s Content Central organization.