The drama and excitement of the 2017 America's Cup was beamed live onto screens across the world to be enjoyed by tens of millions of TV viewers. This latest edition has confirmed the transition of the world's oldest continually-contested international sporting challenge from a niche-market elite event into a global media phenomenon, and iXblue has played a key role in this success.
Match-race sailing should have all the ingredients for a world-class TV broadcast experience – particularly the space-age raceboats themselves, which use technology worthy of F1 cars to literally fly above the waves. Yet the America's Cup has traditionally struggled to find worldwide universal appeal, mainly because the races in this unbelievably complex event have always been notoriously difficult for spectators to follow and understand. Start and finish lines, as well as course markers, are difficult to see. Boats may be travelling in different directions half a mile away from each other one moment, then just meters apart on apparent collision course the next.
Today, all that is changing, thanks to AC Liveline, the company responsible for producing the America's Cup broadcast pictures, and their use of iXblue's Airins inertial navigation system (INS). With performance that belies its compact dimensions and featherweight, 4.5 kg stature, Airins provides all the data required to produce an immersive new TV viewing experience. Through the use of highly detailed graphics overlaid directly onto the live pictures being transmitted from the film helicopters, viewers can see immediately and in real time the speed of the boats, how far they are from the next marker, the course boundaries or indeed the finish line, and, most importantly, which one is in the lead.
To achieve this, production teams need to know the location of the film helicopter to within a few centimeters, and the orientation of the camera to within 1/100th of a degree. Which is where iXblue's industry-leading inertial positioning and measurement technology comes in. The iXblue Airins system is fitted to both the official helicopters filming the race. It relays ultra-accurate real-time positioning data. This is combined with the GPS data on the location, speed and heading of each raceboat, enabling real-time mapping of the relative positions of the craft, which in turn generates those game-changing overlaid graphics.
Airins can be installed directly on the helicopter camera mounts for easy deployment, and has proven itself more than robust enough to handle the extreme vibrations from the helicopter as well as the constant battering of the wind, the weather and the saltwater spray. "We turn the Airins on every morning, we run it all day long, and it stays accurate all day long," says Ken Milnes, Senior Engineer with AC Liveline. "We've been using this device for five years now, and we've never had any failures."
This reliability combines with the operational flexibility and ease-of-use upon which iXblue has built its reputation. Airins is simple to configure and operate on the fly, thanks to a highly intuitive user interface. Technicians can define offset parameters smoothly and quickly through a web browser, while ultra-accurate heading, roll and pitch data are delivered in real-time through a comprehensive data interface featuring the highest possible update rates. What's more, as Milnes confirms, Airins does all this consistently, without fuss, whatever the operating conditions. "It's a harsh environment. We're out in the weather, with the vibration of the helicopter, and the Airins just withstands it all flawlessly."