Wednesday, December 23, 2009

F1 and Defense technology crossover

Technology crossover from defense/military and aerospace into motorsports is not a particularly new phenomenon. You can point to the use of carbon brakes, carbon fiber for structural rigidity purposes, exotic metals, aerodynamics and communication tools as examples where this has taken place.

There has been some very hardcore efforts that emanated from the defense sector. In the mid 60's to early 70's Mécanique Avion TRAction or MATRA had quite a successful history in Formula One and endurance sportscar racing with a F1 Constructor tile with Tyrell in 1969 and multiple wins at the 24 Hours of LeMans. It was a name well known in racing circles and is still very active in the defense industry under an assortment of different names. Although it stopped official operations in the 70's, in essence the team lived on as Ligier until 1996 and then as Prost GP until their ultimate demise as a F1 constructor in 2002.

These days you can say there is still plenty of involvement from the defense sector and it is wide ranging. The visible of this involvement was Intertechnique, who supplied Formula One re-fueling rigs and ancillary equipment from 1994-2009; refuelling is banned from 2010 on. Intertechnique's business is development and manufacture of fuel circulation systems for aircraft, helicopters, and missiles. An interesting performance fact is the fuel delivery rate was 3.2 gallons/sec (12 Liters/sec). Imagine going to the local gas station and filling up in under 5 seconds.

BAE Systems, a British defense, security and aerospace company and recognized as the 2nd largest defense contractor in the world, has a partnership with McLaren Mercedes. In their words, the partnership has resulted in significant cross-fertilization in areas such as aerodynamics and rapid engineering. They redesigned McLaren's fuel tanks, leading to more accurate determination of the fuel remaining and improvements to the cars centre of gravity. Those advancements were utilized on the MP4-20, a title contending car that garnered a lot of post season awards for being the best car in F1 in 2005.

Another example is the Phantom Works, a division of Boeing, again one of the biggest defense contractors in the world, has done composite work with the Renault F1 team since 2004 and now is partnered with them to jointly develop computational fluid dynamics (CFD) code within Renault's CFD research center. Also, the partnership extends beyond development of new CFD tools to areas like structures, advanced digital manufacturing and even accident investigation. Renault's R29, was the first car to take full benefit from the new CFD center.

Also, let us consider the use of CFD itself and the amounts of computing power needed. Probably the most known is Sauber's Albert 2, developed by Swiss-based Dalco AG. When launched in 2006 it was one of the most powerful supercomputers in Formula One. Now Sauber has Albert 3 and the new performance of this supercomputer is 45th on the worldwide top 500 list of currently running systems (including military/defense) and 3rd of all systems in private industry. One of Dalco's customers is General Dynamics, 5th larger defense contractor in the world.

In sticking with the digital domain, there has been a proliferation of simulator technology in F1. McLaren have a very sophisticated simulator (again probably with help from BAE) and Red Bull Racing supposedly has one of high quality. Ferrari contracted with Moog who has a lengthy defense industry history and has also been involved in motorsport since 1982 when they initially supplied Team Lotus active ride height equipment for use on their F1 cars, the first cars to use "active suspension" in Formula One, just recently completed a military grade simulator and said to be most advanced simulator in F1. Moog still produces electro-hydraulic products for F1 and presumably other motorsport series as well.

In terms of "flow" from racing to the world of defense, motorsports has been identified by the UK Ministry of Defense as a potentially valuable source of appropriate technology in high-stress, high-reliability, rapid-turnaround engineering. I suppose very useful in a military context. If we consider actual war-fighting in dealing with asymmetrical tactics of IED's and car bombs, engineers at McLaren Applied Technologies in conjunction with US-based Vibration & Sound Solutions Limited (VSSL) to design and build a Blast Shock Mitigating Seat for the US Office of Naval Research. Using McLaren’s rapid prototype techniques and manufacturing methods, the project was completed for testing in 11 weeks. A number of blast seats have since been built for long-term testing with the US Office of Naval Research.

It becomes rather obvious that these industries can inter-mix when you think about it in the context of danger, life, death, speed and adaptability. Interesting things to consider when you think about the racing industry or a nation's military. And although 'tis the season for peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, when you watch your next race or you continue to follow the current conflicts in the world take a pause to think; the same people that are preparing behind the scenes for war on the track, are literally behind the scenes preparing for war. There is definitely some good and some bad in that.

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