Richard Noble, Project Drector of Bloodhound, the British attempt to set a world land speed record of 1,000mph, argues that inspirational engineering projects can help the UK reclaim its place as a global technology pioneer.
Ever driven at 650mph? At that speed, you’re travelling one mile every five and a half seconds. That’s fast, but not fast enough. A mile every 3.6 seconds: that’s the magic 1,000mph mark – and we’ll be there in 2014. Is it self-indulgent madness? I don’t think so, because the global benefit will be an entire generation waking up to the much-needed creativity that comes with mathematics, technology, science and engineering.
Delivering the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August, Eric Schmidt criticised British education for its “drift towards the humanities”, and suggested we need to “bring art and science back together”. Only then can the UK compete on a global scale with a new generation of digital entrepreneurs. I agree – and the land speed record can be just the project to do it.
The UK has held the world land speed record for 27 years. We were the first to go supersonic in 1997, but now we’re ready to go faster. The new car, Bloodhound SSC, is both jet- and rocket-powered, has 135,000hp, and is the result of 30 man-years of intense research, advancing the science of computational fluid dynamics and design optimisation on a scale that previously would have demanded brain time measured in generations.
”Bloodhound SSC is both jet- and rocket-powered, has 135,000hp, and is the result of 30 man-years of intense research.”
The project has a great affinity with the web. When the British media denied us coverage of the Thrust SSC build in the ’90s (they said their readership would never understand the technology), we decided to pursue our own publicity online. We believed that the British media was 180-degrees out of phase – the public loves technology – and sure enough, the data proved us right. The 800 technology pages on the Thrust SSC website received 59 million visits and 300 million page views in 1997.
Not only did we catch on to the power of the web fast, we built a global community that made a real difference to our success. When we had difficulty securing the 250,000 gallons of jet fuel we needed to get the team, support equipment and car to the Nevada desert to start our record attempt, our community bought it for us at a rate of 30,000 gallons a day. We were very proud to deliver them the new world record with a supersonic bang.
Soon enough, of course, there was a challenge to our record and we had to respond. So our driver, Andy Green, a former RAF fighter pilot who works for the Ministry of Defence, fixed a meeting with The Minister, a man very keen on his motor racing. He liked the idea of the new car, but the conversation hit the rocks when we asked for the most advanced military fighter engine to power it.
As we were about to leave the meeting, however, The Minister suggested that there was something we could do for him. “The Ministry of Defence is seriously short of engineers,” he told us. “We need to look back at the Cold War years when the kids were excited by incredible British aerospace engineering, with new prototype aircraft developed every year. I need a new, iconic British engineering project run through all the schools to deliver us a new generation of engineers.”
Eager to advance our engine prospects, we would have agreed to anything. And that’s how it started.
According to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, British education is in decline. The 2006 Leitch Review of Skills, an independent report commissioned by the Labour government, found that our manufacturing skills are mostly held by 40-60-year-olds. In 20 years, the aircraft industry will lose 20 percent of its highly skilled workforce. Take up on IT courses is falling through the floor. But reversal is possible – back in the 1960s, the NASA Manned Space Program stimulated a massive increase in PhDs, from 12,000 to 32,000 a year in a single decade. Today, we don’t need expenditure on that scale, just a highly stimulating project and a mature, distributed media – and now we have both. So it is possible: the Minister might have his new generation of engineers after all.
Why did our engineering skills go into decline? Probably because the country focussed on its service industries, while engineers had little in the way of exciting projects that could stimulate schools and colleges. After all, wind turbines and electric cars don’t exactly set the pulse racing. But Bloodhound does – and it can maintain that high degree of stimulation right the way across all levels of education.
As the project came together, the schools began to sign up; we’ve now got 4,500 on the books. Our strategy is simple: to deliver an open project with no patents, and to live share all design and performance data. There have been 2,300 downloads of our CAD drawings suite to date. Could this mean 2,300 car clones? I hope so: open competition is ideal.
“Wind turbines and electric cars don’t exactly set the pulse racing. But Bloodhound does.”
Right now, we’re into car build, and it’s tough – technologically similar to building a high-performance jet fighter. Our small ‘Skunk’ team is flat out and actually in need of more engineers – but we’ll roll out in December 2012 for high-speed runs in 2013.
Are we doing this with public money? No chance. The finance comes from global sponsors and private donations, and as we’re into 250 percent growth in stagflation, we must be doing something right. The financial pressures are frightful, but the Brits always find humour in appalling situations – in this case, it comes from the expressions of disbelief on the faces of commentators who predicted the project’s failure.
The key is our flat company structure in which everyone is empowered. We make fast decisions, move quickly, and are cost effective. The result is innovation on a grand scale. Just ask the engineers: 10,000rpm wheels; hybrid rockets; TO; CFD; ALM; DOE – it’s all there.
Exactly 5,558 miles due south from our UK headquarters, the Northern Cape government in South Africa is getting the Hakskeen Pan desert ready for Bloodhound. We need the flattest place on earth and 3,000-feet altitude so we don’t have the dynamic problems of sea-level air pressure. Even so, at speed, the Bloodhound has to withstand 12.5 tonnes on every square metre of bodywork. If it fails, we’re in serious trouble. As I write this, the NC government has just removed an entire causeway, and has 300 local people picking up 24 million square metres of surface stones. It should be ready by Christmas, which gives the desert a year to consolidate.
There is one more amazing opportunity. We’re learning that new data and technology enable us to create far lighter and better optimised structures for the car – ones that are rewriting what we thought was possible (the same is happening with the new Boeing 787). We’re now in a unique position to share these new learnings.
The Google-backed Khan Academy showed us how. A former financier-turned-web education guru, Salman Khan found that disciplined students learn faster and more thoroughly online than in class. When Bloodhound makes its record attempt in 2013, we’re going to immediately download 500 data channels from each run. Of course, all that data will be wasted if the followers we have in 211 countries don’t have the education to enable them to understand, predict and share the project engineering with us. So we are working with Southampton University to create our own online academy – turning the entire programme into a gigantic global online educator.
The final challenge is to link our worldwide followers through social media. And that’s how we’ll get our 1,000mph car!
Bloodhound wheels run at 10,500rpm and the radial acceleration is 50,000G. Thus, a one-kilo bag of sugar on a wheel rim will exert a radial force equivalent to the weight of a 50-tonne road truck.
A rocket motor that uses a solid fuel, but which is dependent on a liquid oxidiser for combustion. The oxidiser flow can be cancelled in order to safely terminate combustion.
TO (Topological Optimisation)
A structural software optimiser which, when programmed with all loads the selected structure has to bear, progressively removes unneeded material, thus reducing the final structure to the lightest and most efficient compatible with the given loads.
CFD (Computation Fluid Dynamics)
An advanced finite element software programme, which analyses subsonic and supersonic airflows. Bloodhound software uses 100 million space elements. It was used on Thrust SSC and was qualified with parallel rocket model testing.
ALM (Additive Layer Manufacture)
3D high-speed printing using metals. It eliminates the need for hand skills and manual tooling.
DOE (Design of Experiments)
A revolutionary optimisation analysis programme that’s used on Bloodhound to run and review a large number of CFD progressions and determine the final layout.