The distinctly low-tech nature of harnessing wind power means that sailing is not an activity that is naturally associated with data analytics and cloud computing.
But V3 was shown during the Cardiff leg of the Extreme Sailing Series, in which dual-hull yachts compete in an afternoon of high-speed sailing, that the sport has a lot more cutting-edge technology than first meets the eye.
SAP is the official technology partner of the series, and is responsible for providing a software suite designed to aid sailors and improve spectators' understanding of an often complex sport.
The company brought a custom cloud-based data analytics service to the series, known as Sailing Analytics, which it developed with the input of SAP Extreme Sailing, a Danish team sponsored by the firm.
Big data boating
Sailing Analytics is built on a foundation of SAP products, including the Business Objects software portfolio, the HANA database platform, and Lumira business intelligence software, and processes data gathered from the boats and the sea.
Milan Cerny, business intelligence consultant at SAP, said in an interview with V3 that Sailing Analytics has been designed to provide more insight into sailing races.
"What we are doing in the world of sailing, and the Extreme Sailing Series in particular, is applying sensor based data," he said.
"We're gathering data from GPS sensors on the boats and wind measurement units in the water, and this way we can produce a virtual picture of what's happening on the water in real time."
IoT on the water
From a hardware perspective, Sailing Analytics effectively relies on an Internet of Things (IoT) in the water and sensors with SIM cards on the boats, feeding back data on the coordinates and speed of the competing boats.
For the first time in the series, wind sensors are being placed on buoys (pictured above) on the course to track wind direction and speed for each race.
"Getting a precise picture of the wind is really key, so that's why this year one of our projects is to improve on that and apply more wind units on the water and get more precise readings, with more sophisticated visualisation tools," said Cerny.
The data harvested from this aquatic IoT network is then fed back into the cloud where it can be stored in the HANA platform's in-memory databases for later analysis, or processed in real time using the Business Objects and Lumira software.
SAP has sponsored its own team in the series, but Sailing Analytics is available to all the teams wishing to tap into the data gathered from the sensors and get an insight into race performance and how to better optimise sailing strategies.
Rasmus Kostner, co-skipper of the SAP Extreme Sailing team, told V3 that analysing the data in Sailing Analytics plays an important part in giving his team an edge in the competition.
"When we spend one hour on the water, we spend one or two hours behind the computer just analysing [our race] to make sure that all the small things we are optimising can be better next time," he said.
Kostner explained that digging through the data showed that on certain courses the team's position on the start line, often contested by rival boats, is more important than than the boat's speed off the line in a race.
He also explained that the Danish team had used Sailing Analytics to improve its performance when they were a new team with little experience of racing catamarans.
"It was a big translation for us to get into faster boats like this. Everything you do you almost have to relearn it, as your priorities on the water are suddenly changed. The right things to do in mono-hulls are exactly the wrong things to do in multi-hulls," he said.
Rather than relying on hundreds of races to hone the team's skills, Kostner said that he could look at the Sailing Analytics data and find out exactly where the team needed to make improvements.
Despite now being a strong competitor in the Extreme Sailing Series, Kostner is not about to push the data analytics to one side.
"We can always lean back and use our experience, but it is so nice to use something that is fact-based," he said.
Data from the sensors is processed in the cloud and provides results in seconds, allowing race team coaches to see the performance of their boats in real time. Kostner said that this allows coaches to brief sailors on their performance in the short breaks between races.
The data is not given to the sailors when they are racing owing to the intensity of the activity on the boats, meaning that race teams have little time to incorporate insights into their racing on the fly.
V3 joined the SAP Extreme Sailing team during warm-up, and can report that the sheer speed of the boats makes it difficult to focus on much else other than the movement and the buoys marking the course ahead.
Analytics on shore
Sailing Analytics was not just designed to meet sailors' needs, but to help land-based commentators and spectators understand what is going on during a race.
The yachts sail the same course but often tackle it in different ways, some opting for a wider route around a buoy to gather more wind for increased speed, some sacrificing speed and taking a shorter line to cut down on the distance.
This makes it difficult for spectators to see which team is ahead in the race and understand the tactics being employed by the sailors.
To solve this, Sailing Analytics creates 3D visualisations (pictured above) from the collected data to make it easier for spectators and commentators to follow the race by watching the virtual action on large screens or tablets.
Kostner said there is a distinct need for analytics and visualisation in complex sports to help a wider audience understand the nuances of the activity happening in front of them.
"I think this is the beginning of a tendency you are going to see in a lot of sports," he said. "Sailing is a complex sport and very difficult to understand, so it was obvious you needed technology to tell the spectators who's leading or not."
Race commentators also gain additional 2D visual data to better understand and communicate to their audience why the teams are carrying out certain manoeuvres.
"The whole showcase is really end-user driven. We work very closely with the fans, spectators, organisers, sailors and commentators," said Cerny.
"We take their requirements and incorporate them into our software. So a sailor has different needs to a commentator who needs have data to the point and in a very simple way."
Sights on sport
Sailing isn't the only area where SAP has ambitions to push its technology into the world of sport. The company also uses some of its analytics systems for the Women's Tennis Association, horse riding, Formula One and football.
"Football is one of our strategic sports that we are looking into at the moment. We have a major partnership with FC Bayern Munich," said Cerny, adding that analytics can be used to support the training of footballers rather than just monitor their performance on the pitch.
Crunching data can yield numerous opportunities beyond the sporting and enterprise worlds, such as the retail automotive and banking industries which are able to dig out benefits from big data.
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