Image: Sam Greenfield

APEX Insight: APEX Media was on-site in Bermuda to see how swapping sky for sand has led Airbus to adopt a more multidisciplinary approach, to rethink its team structure and to improve its craft.

Tomorrow, Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) and Emirates Team New Zealand will enter the final round of the 35th America’s Cup, competing for the oldest international sporting trophy. But athletic moxie isn’t all that’s being tested: “It has always been the best technological boat that has won,” says Pierre-Marie Belleau, head of Business Development, Airbus. “This is even more true for this event.”

A sailing enthusiast himself, Belleau is at the forefront of Airbus’ official innovation partnership with OTUSA, having been at the companies’ first encounter and present throughout the development, training and competition phases. Of course, Airbus and OTUSA’s collaboration hinges on far more than appreciation for the sport. Put simply: “The boats are looking closer and closer to planes,” Fabrice Brégier, CEO of Airbus, tells APEX Media.

“The boats are looking closer and closer to planes.” — Fabrice Brégier, Airbus

The synergies between sailing and flying were never as strong as they are now, with faster-than-ever speeds and almost entire races conducted in “flying mode” – sailing parlance for when the boat’s hull is completely lifted out of water and gliding on its L-shaped hydrofoils. In this mode, the yachts are going anywhere from 40 to 50 knots, and aerodynamic drag suddenly surpasses hydrodynamic drag as the primary technical concern. Although the foiling technology was introduced by Team New Zealand in the 34th America’s Cup, this is the first time that it becomes a defining factor of the competition.

The parallels don’t end there. OTUSA’s use of high-level composite materials, complex control systems, hydraulic energy, 3-D printing and a new “wing sail” design are all inspired by the aerospace industry. “There is no more main sail. It is a solid wing,” says Belleau. “The size of the wing is basically the size of the wing of an A320. And the structure is exactly identical to the structure of an aircraft wing.” Speaking of the rapid evolution of sailing in this state of the game – and its rapprochement to airborne vehicles – Laurent Chatillon, an Airbus engineer who has been based in Bermuda for the past two years, says sailing is today where aviation was in the 60s and 70s: “the very beginning.”

While the outcomes yielded from Airbus and OTUSA’s partnership may be more evident on the waterways than the airways, Brégier and Belleau agree that the current of success flows both ways. “It’s a constant give and take in terms of technology, approach, ways to innovate,” Brégier says. “It has really been a dual exchange.”

Referencing that exchange, Belleau points to innovations in the yacht’s foils, which he likens to a aircraft sharklets. Although as of yet unable to share the details of the improvements, he claims, they are “so great” that passengers will be able to see them “on board the aircraft [they] will fly tomorrow.” Another innovation emerging from the OTUSA hangar is a new-generation of Micro-Electro-Mechanical-System (MEMS) sensor technology used to accumulate wind data, which will be used on Airbus’ forthcoming aircraft type, the A350-1000. “We are using this new generation of MEMS, developed with Team USA for the America’s cup, for our core business, which is developing aircraft,” explains Belleau.

Passengers will have to wait some time before flying aboard an aircraft with next-generation MEMS and sharklets, but other, more nuanced changes are being made to the manufacturer’s internal operations. A handful of Airbus’ engineers relocated to Bermuda for as long as three years – a number of others were splitting their time between boats in Bermuda and aircraft at one of Airbus’ bases – and will return armed with the fresh, fast-paced approach endemic of a competition of this magnitude. “Because their approach is to make very fast designs and to test things very quickly, it is very interesting to see,” explains Belleau. “It’s an eye-opener for us.”

“Their approach is to make very fast designs and to test things very quickly.” — Pierre-Marie Belleau, Airbus

Brégier agrees, suggesting that OTUSA’s smaller, more agile team – about 40 engineers as opposed to the 5,000 engineers it takes to build a single airplane – may very well be the key to fast-tracking innovation. “We have so many engineers in big projects, the risk is the dilution of responsibility. What I am pushing for is every team to have different skills … And so you recreate a kind of small unit in charge of developing a part of an aircraft, an evolution of an aircraft, a new system or a new type of technology.” Indeed, designing an aircraft for 20–25 years of service is a far cry from a few short races, Brégier admits, but the pace, risk and spirit of sailing can be incorporated into the design phase.

If OTUSA does win the 35th America’s cup, it will attest not only to the skipper’s foresight and grinders’ strength, but to the Airbus engineers who left one blue terrain for another. After all, bringing together Airbus and OTUSA, leaders in their respective fields, was, according to Brégier, “probably not a stupid idea.”

Valerie is deputy editor at APEX Media.