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Vendée Globe: how Nokia is helping skipper Alex Thomson go beyond his limits

Nokia Bells Labs seek to optimize the performance of the boat and the navigator. An experiment which could find applications in other extreme environments.

The Vendée Globe is not just a fight between Man and the raging sea. Although this ruthless sailing race is solo and unassisted, it also represents an opportunity to test and improve technologies. This is the reason why the famous research centers Nokia Bell Labs entered into a partnership with the British skipper Alex Thomson two years ago.

Most of the work was done before the race to respect the rule of no assistance. The Hugo Boss monohull therefore has an internal server where it stores all the data, as well as a Wi-Fi network which relies on a 4G connection near the coast, and on satellite on the high seas.

Simplify decision making

The collaboration covers multiple aspects:

“We are looking to improve the performance of the boat and Alex by presenting all the information he needs in the simplest way possible. The idea is to simplify your decision-making ”, explains Thierry Klein, in charge of the partnership at Bell Labs.

Because Alex Thomson’s nightmare is to relive the day when he hit a cliff in Guadeloupe during the Route du Rhum 2018: an alarm went off but he did not wake up because he was exhausted.

So, the Nokia Bell Labs developed especially for him a device for tracking biometric data that he wears permanently and that he recharges only every eight days. Calorie expenditure, heart rate, sleep, all its activities and recovery are scrutinized.

Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss boat. Mark Lloyd – Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss boat.

Monitor the boat

It is also about monitoring the condition of the monohull. Because its design is very particular since the choice was made to make the cockpit completely closed to protect the skipper from external elements. Alex Thomson therefore drives his boat from the inside but his eyes are on the outside.

If the Nokia Bell Labs did not participate in its construction or develop the sensors, they tried again to centralize the information as well as possible. The browser therefore has an application on smartphone, tablet and PC providing it with a view of the cameras.

“He can rotate them, tilt them, zoom inside the image and even record and broadcast videos for his fans”, details Thierry Klein.

Alex Thomson keeps an eye on his nine cameras on different devices. DR – Alex Thomson keeps an eye on his nine cameras on different devices.

Improve the autopilot

But one of the biggest contributions from Nokia Bell Labs concerns the autopilot settings which have been improved through machine learning. Because the Hugo Boss boat is driven 90% of the time by the machine.

“You have to make the autopilot as close as possible to the way Alex would drive. So that he intervenes as little as possible to correct it “. This does not mean at all that the skippers are twiddling their thumbs. “It’s not like a train that you put on tracks. There is still a lot to do: you have to choose the route, the race strategy and all the sail changes. There are so many variables between the wind, the waves and the weather. Even on autopilot, the skipper must constantly observe what is happening and make changes ”.

The last plan on which Nokia Bell Labs intervene is connectivity of course. Let us not forget that the Nokia group is also a telecom equipment manufacturer.

“We are trying to improve and stabilize his connectivity so that he can communicate with his team and his family but also send messages to the public”, testifies again Thierry Klein.

An experience transferable to other extreme environments

Overcoming adversity, the skipper Alex Thomson is used to it like all those who take part in the Vendée Globe. This race has indeed made life difficult for him since he took part in it since he suffered both damage and speed records. Having started among the favorites this year, he has once again suffered an incident which slowed him down.

Because the race is managed on a ridge line: you have to navigate as quickly as possible without going until it breaks. It is an extreme example but very applicable to industrial scenarios.

“We learn a lot in this microcosm. The technologies we develop will be transferable to other industrial environments such as mining, offshore or gas platforms ”, promises Thierry Klein.

He hopes, in the meantime, that his champion will finish the Vendée Globe without a hitch and even dreams of being able to welcome him on his arrival in case the health situation improves.

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