Televising races like the America's Cup series creates several obstacles limiting the viewer experiences. Because of this TV coverage was limited and catching the attention of your average sports fan was a tough sell. That is before a variety of technologies were brought on board for the 2013 America’s Cup, the 34th running of the races held in San Francisco. 

AC Oracle ImageIt was at that America’s Cup series, where the defender Oracle Team USA representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, and the challenger Emirates Team New Zealand representing the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, helped showcase how the best GPS navigation systems can assist in producing a totally enhanced, viewer friendly TV experience for sports fans everywhere, whether sitting on a sofa at home or following on a mobile device. With the help of NovAtel® equipment, the team with LiveLine revolutionized both the TV broadcasts and the way race officials are able to track and score these fast-paced events.

Customized Software

With a long history in applying augmented reality to broadcast sports, Ken Milnes and partner Stan Honey were hired in June 2010 by the Oracle team to develop the tracking, telemetry, and augmented-reality system for the America’s Cup races. From the get-go, they knew they’d need the best equipment available to overcome all the obstacles and deliver the most accurate data necessary.

“We got convinced in our discussions with various vendors that NovAtel was the company that was going to make it work for us. That they were interested in the project and that they were willing to customize software for our needs,” said Milnes, whose work with a company called Sportvision led to TV breakthroughs such as the yellow first-down lines for football broadcasts, and the graphics used to follow NASCAR drivers speeding around ovals on your television screen.

Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, competed and won the 33rd America’s Cup and promptly set his sights on improving the television graphics—and therefore the viewer experience for future races.

“Larry contacted Stan to try and up the TV graphics for the America’s Cup,” Milnes said. “Sailing doesn’t get much television coverage. Sailing is a difficult sport to cover on television and hard to understand for non-sailors.”

But Ellison was hoping to change all of that, envisioning improved television graphics that would lead to additional viewers for the sport and increased television exposure.

“Larry’s vision was to make sailing a real commercial property. If you can improve the entertainment value, which really means improve the television, then the popularity can go up. Rather than it just being a niche sport, you can have a league, and make it an ongoing sport,” said Milnes, Live Graphics Project Manager at America’s Cup Event Authority.

“So he reached out to Stan and myself to improve the TV graphics.”

“When we made this proposal, we said, ‘Look, we’ve built systems that barely worked before because of technical limitations, and it’s a nightmare.’ So, if we’re going to do this we’re going to have good equipment. We’re going to go to the top of the line to make sure that the navigation works extremely well,” he said.

The team put together a wish list of equipment that included NovAtel’s SPAN® GNSS/INS, NovAtel’s OEM GNSS receiver and ProPak6™ receivers. 

AC Screen

A NovAtel SPAN system was placed on each race boat. RTK ProPak6 receivers were placed on the mark boats, boats along the race course in which the racers sail around. The RTK ProPak6 systems are also used by the support boats, the race marshal boats and the race’s committee boat. This equipment provides the navigation solutions for the entire race.

“For the race boats we needed to know their positions and we needed to know the attitude, the pitch, roll and yaw of the boat,” said Milnes, “People would traditionally measure the yaw or the heading of the boat using a compass.”

With a lot of work, using a compass on a boat, you might be able to get the angle to within about one degree, explains Milnes. But these projects require far greater accuracy.

“We needed 10 times better accuracy, for several reasons, so that’s why we went with the instruments from NovAtel,” he said. “Typically, if you go to a lower quality it’s difficult to measure the heading of an object using just IMU [Inertial Measurement Unit]. If you go to a low grade IMU you can’t get good heading.”

Initially the goal was primarily to improve the TV graphics. But once the team knew it had such precise accuracy, it was determined that the navigation technology also could improve the way the race officials tracked and scored the events.

“It became apparent that the accuracy was good; that we had centimetre level positioning and a tenth of a degree heading, and that the umpires could use the data,” Milnes said. “In sailing, typically the way that you umpire a race is that you have the umpires on boats, on the water and they follow the boats.”

But as the catamarans used in America’s Cup became faster and faster in recent years, it became difficult for the race umpires to closely monitor things like course boundaries, minor collisions and penalties.

“In the America’s Cup the way the boats evolved to where we have these very fast catamarans, and with the way the rules were it was going to be impossible for the umpires to run the race just being on the water,” he

These updated rules, along with Ellison’s objective, are designed to bring the racing very close to the shore so that the spectators can see it. Again, trying to make this more of an entertainment property.

To pull this off, officials needed to restrict the boundaries. They wanted to keep the boats in close, which meant artificial boundaries were needed for the boats, just like with football where players have to stay within the field of play.

These “electronic boundaries” are not visible by umpires on the boat or by the racers themselves, so Milnes and his team provided the racers with a display on each boat that told them how far the boats were away from the boundary. There’s a countdown clock that as they’re sailing toward the boundary it essentially starts counting down from 200 metres, to 150 metres, 100 metres, etc. If it reads zero, the boat is out of bounds and receives a penalty.

In order to precisely track these catamarans—to assist both the racers and the television producers—and to assist the race officials, the instrumentation providing the navigation and providing the processed data, needs to be spot on.

“The way that penalties get assigned is all this data, the position data, the attitude of the boat, gets sent back to our control center and the umpires have a moving map display of where the boats are,” Milnes said. “Then the computer software also alerts them if they go out of bounds.” For the America’s Cup series—including the World Series races that lead up to the Cup—
there are two umpires in the booth, on shore, looking at their software, and two more umpires on the water.

AC Fly Emirates“You still need people on the water. If boats touch it’s a violation. If they miss each other by a millimetre it’s not a violation,” he said. “So you really have to have someone on the water looking at these very fine details. Plus there’s issues of intent, you know if there’s a collision. Then you’ve got to decide whose fault it is. So giving that we’re umpiring the races that puts high demands on the navigation, and the reliability of the navigation because it’s part of the rules.”

Umpiring the Race

Now, race umpires are able to consult live computer-rendered diagrams showing boats and the location of different course markings before ruling on a possible rule violations, in much the same way that referees in American football now use instant replay. One big difference Milnes said, is that America’s Cup umpires will look at the images before making their calls.

The 34th America’s Cup finals feature 72-foot boats called AC 72s. The World Series uses different, 45-foot boats called AC 45s. This year, during the 35th America’s Cup 50 foot AC50’s will compete. Working these events means plenty of travel, so Milnes and his colleagues have worked in the UK, France, Portugal, Japan, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Sweden, and Italy in recent years, before heading to Bermuda this summer for the 35th America’s Cup, often referred to as “The Match”.

“Throughout all of these races we have NovAtel instrumentation on the boats,” said Milnes, whose team has been through four generations of hardware since first implementing the technology in 2001 in NASCAR, as NovAtel has continuously improved its receivers.

“We’re always improving our software but for the most part we’re using the original hardware that we purchased in 2011 for the America’s Cup. It’s been good and reliable. It’s certainly been well received and everyone seems to like what we’re doing, by all means,” he said.

The TV graphics are always improving. To ensure reliable GPS corrections, they set up their own differential base station, along with a Wi-Fi network to allow communication with the boats between ship and shore.

“Then by using the differential corrections we get centimetre level position accuracy,” he said. “Now with knowing the heading and the attitude of the boat, we know where all parts of the boat are. Our GPS receiver is back on the stern of the boat, and on the AC 72s, for example, the bow is, you know the front of the boat is 72 feet in front (of the receiver).

“With our TV graphics, we put a national flag to identify the boat at the top of the mast. On the AC 72s that mast is 40 metres up in the air. We need to know the pitch and roll of the boat so we can place the flag graphic at the top of the mast. So the fantastic accuracy of the NovAtel equipement and SPAN technology is just vital. This wouldn’t work without that.”

Race fans now get a whole new experience when watching the America’s Cup on TV, with boundaries visualized on the water, real-time scoring and position updates and a sense of really being up close to the action.

AC Grammy“I don’t know how to put hard data on it, but as I’ve talked to my friends and other people in the industry, they say this made sailing understandable,” said Milnes, whose team received the George Wensel Outstanding Technical Achievement Emmy Award in 2012 for “The America’s Cup Highlight Show—LiveLine.”

The sport of sailing is growing internationally, and America’s Cup organizers are invested in constantly improving the spectator experience. With the help of NovAtel’s technology, LiveLine can now superimpose graphics on the screen as a technical aid for viewers, like ahead-behind lines that enable audiences to clearly see who is leading the race and race-course boundaries. Spectators will recognize the technology from other SportVision products, like that yellow first-down line used in the NFL, and the Race/FX tracking and highlighting system used in NASCAR.

It appears as if the success from those other sports is now finding its way to the seas, with plenty of help from today’s innovative navigation solutions.