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Alinghi: wind in the sails of science

Imaging systems, intelligent materials, game theory, fluid flow simulations: science is progressing rapidly thanks to the cooperation between Alinghi and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Better still, this partnership contributes to the education of a new generation of world-class scientists.

The countdown to the America’s Cup has begun. No matter what the outcome, the scientific and technological results of the partnership between Alinghi and EPFL have demonstrated that the benefits and the potential of the America’s Cup will extend far beyond the regattas. The collaboration that began in 2000 was strengthened after Alinghi’s victory in 2003, focusing on more fundamental areas. The relations between the sailing team, the design team and the scientists have opened up new horizons, demonstrating that Alinghi is fully committed to its slogan “Technology Together”. And Alinghi is not afraid to unveil a few secrets to the public at its base in Valencia, one of the few teams willing to do so. Visitors can explore an exhibit describing the main innovations of the Alinghi-EPFL partnership for the 32nd edition of the America’s Cup.

Even though America’s Cup Class rules require the boats to have the same basic silhouette, they are all quite different when it comes to the technology used in their design, construction and use. This technology, however, requires a high level of expertise in a number of research areas. As official “Scientific Advisor”, EPFL shares several important research axes with Alinghi:

-Mathematicians have been improving computer simulations of fluid flow, to better understand what is happening in the air and water around the hull and the sails. These numerical models are useful tools for optimising the design of elements such as the keel, the rudder, the hull or the sails.

-Materials specialists have continued their work to improve the performance of composites. Sophisticated materials, such as carbon-epoxy sandwich structures, have progressed considerably with improvements at the microscopic level in the manufacturing process. And now, thanks to the contributions of optics researchers, these materials have an added dimension – sensation. Similar to nerve fibers in the human body, these materials contain embedded optical fibers that give real-time feedback on strain and deformation.

-Results are not always easy to come by. For example, how can one determine the exact form of the spinnaker as the yacht is sailing, with its huge dimensions, the vagaries of the wind and the elasticity of the cloth? Here, image analysis has led to spectacular progress by making it possible to determine the three-dimensional form of an object from a series of still images. Considering that seeing in 3D normally requires two eyes, this research advance is a real tour de force.

-The wind above the water’s surface is constantly changing speed and direction. How can these fluctuations be anticipated? Here, again, mathematicians come to the rescue, developing new models based on game theory. These models are also used in many other domains, such as finance.

EPFL has carried out a unique collaboration with Alinghi during the lead-up to this America’s Cup competition, building upon the partnership developed in the previous campaign. Science and education, with fifty students involved from the project’s beginning, are already winners in this magnificent adventure.

Mary Parlange | alfa
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