Real-Time Decisions at 200 MPH

The Technology Behind Winning Formula 1 Races Can Also Empower Your Control System

By Paul Studebaker

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You might or might not care about Formula 1 auto racing, or that McLaren Racing has been in that business since 1963. You may be unimpressed by the pioneering of carbon fiber on the track in 1981, or the world's fastest road car in 1998, or 12 driver and eight constructional F1 championships, or the introduction of the McLaren 12C production car in 2011. You might say, "Great. What's that got to do with process control?"

"Speed of decision-making is critical to success," said Mike Phillips, head of the advanced composites division, McLaren Racing, in his keynote speech today at the 2014 Yokogawa Users Conference and Exhibition in Houston. The company's pioneering use of electronics and communications to support real-time decision-making has allowed it to win races and opened the door to advances in critical systems management that have direct relevance, but so far have only occasionally been applied to industrial facilities.

The racing pays the bills and fosters a dynamic development environment where measurements made on a car on a track anywhere in the world are immediately transmitted by satellite to an operations center in the U.K. There they're analyzed by simulation to determine the appropriate action, which is sent back to the track. Information collected on Sunday fuels engineering on Monday, which determines how the cars will be changed before the next race.

"We're monitoring both the cars and the people, and deciding what we should do. When should we pit stop—in three laps? How will that turn out? We model the what-ifs before we take action. What if there's an accident? What if the weather changes?" Phillips said. "You typically have six seconds to make a decision. If we get it right, we win some trophies. If we get it wrong, there are 16 million people watching on TV."

A typical Formula 1 car has 120 sensors streaming during a race. "We understand a great deal about the car, how it performs during a race to help us design and optimize systems," Phillips said. "Then there's the fleshy, irrational individual who sits in the middle of it." Engineers can see how the driver behaves. His reactions to changes and his comments also feed the design process.

Data is good, but you also have to know what to do about it, which is where simulation comes in. "Simulation is very important to us," Phillips said. "We don't have time to design, make and test every component." Simulation applies to performance, as well as the parts. It predicts how the system of car, driver and track will perform.

From Miles High to a Mile Below Sea Level

McLaren has taken its racetrack experience and branched into applied technologies for energy, healthcare and transport, "industries where data is more and more important to get ahead of the competition," Phillips said.

For example, Heathrow Airport is planned carefully to run at 99% capacity – every day, 700 flights take off, and 700 land. "But every morning at 5 a.m., they look up into the skies and nothing is as expected," Phillips said. Some flights are early, some are delayed. Some have plenty of extra fuel and some do not. What's the best way to direct the traffic? "Models are great, graphics are great, but if you can't change it and make it better, what's the point?"

Instead of holding above the airport, flight order can be changed while the flights are still far away. "You may come a little more slowly, but you won't fly into London and sit," Phillips said. A plane that might have left a distant airport with an extra six tons of fuel so it would arrive with an extra four tons to allow for delays won't have to carry—and waste—that fuel.

An offshore facility can simulate and see the effect of changing a parameter, such as mud consistency, on its drilling schedule, Phillips said. "They can know what will happen."

Bicycle designers have long used finite element analysis to minimize weight, paring a 7-kg machine down to the minimum by understanding stresses and strengths. "What about the 70-kg rider?" Phillips asked. "We can model how the whole system behaves."

Human Health and Behavior

The frontier is in instrumenting people. In the United States, this is being done this year with NFL football players. In the U.K., it's rugby, "played by men with leather balls," said Phillips. The players are wired with biometric systems to measure work rate and potential for injury, so coaches can anticipate and adapt in real time. "Predicting and avoiding fatigue-type injuries can keep them in the game."

McLaren has worked with Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to measure human behavior and reactions to environments, activities, stress and medication. "In the Unites States as well as in the U.K., we can't afford the healthcare system," Phillips said. "What's really effective? We can track whether the medication is taken and taken correctly, and how effective it is."

Obesity programs can monitor people's activity, and "they do better simply because they know someone cares about them," Phillips said. In another program, monitoring electrocardiograph data, temperature, three-axis motion and audio (so they can comment on what they're doing) has led to better understanding of mental stress, which has been correlated to variations in the time between heartbeats. Now there's a measure of how stressed an air traffic controller or racecar driver or plant operator might be.

It may just look like auto racing, but the technology that empowers real-time decisions at 200 mph has applications far from Formula 1, and so does McLaren's driven and creative mindset. "We don't ask if it can be done," Phillips said. "We ask how, and we find a way to make it happen."