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Bloodhound and Oracle chase 1,000 mph land record and hope to inspire a generation of STEM students

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 25, 2017
Richard Noble has been chasing land speed records for over 30 years. However, the Bloodhound Project now has a much bigger goal of inspiring students.

Richard Noble, the director of the Bloodhound Project, says that he has been “infected” since a young age by the desire to chase the land speed record, being relentless in his pursuit over the past 30 years to keep the winning title out of the hands of the Americans.

And following numerous projects over this time, Noble and his team are still reigning champions. ThrustSSC, which was driven by Andy Green, but managed by Noble, hit supersonic speeds in 1997 in Nevada, reaching 763 mph, breaking the world record.

However, since then, challengers have expressed an interest in beating this record - something that Noble and Green don’t want to let happen. Meeting with Noble in central London this week, he said:

Anyhow, so that was that. And the next thing that happened was we found multiple challengers going after our record. So Andy Green, who drove for us, I met in a pub in Whitehall and we said, "What are we going to do?" So we decided what we would do is we would challenge. This would be the last car. This is the last time we're going to do this. We would challenge. And we estimated the competition might get to 800, so therefore, we've got to go faster.

Noble and his team are designing a vehicle that will hopefully reach speeds of 1000 mph. The first public trial run will place in Newquay on 26th October.

However, Bloodhound has taken a different approach this time and isn’t just focusing on the vehicle itself. Following a meeting with the Minister of Defence, Lord Drayson, back in 2008, Noble and his team want to utilise the project to inspire the next generation of STEM students in the UK - in an attempt to help plug the skills gap in this area.

Noble said that during his meeting with the Minister, Drayson said:

What I want you to do is to take your project and run it through every single school in the country and get us a new generation of scientist and engineers.

And that’s exactly what Noble and his team did. However, he said that he had an “awful feeling in the pit of his stomach”, following a tour of schools around the country, that he was getting this wrong somehow. After having spoken to teachers, Noble realised where the issue lay. He said:

The teachers went on to say, "You're doing it wrong." So we then said to the teachers, "Well, okay. We're doing it wrong. Tell us how to do is because we're not specialist here." And they said, "You've got to understand our position as a teacher. As a teacher, when something interesting happens in Britain, what happens is, we get sent press releases and the picture of whatever it is that is being promoted. And that's the end of it. There's not further involvement.

There's a picture of a new airplane or a new air engine or something, and that's it." And the teachers are saying, "This is no bloody good to us. What we want is data. We want the real data from the car going into our classrooms.

Noble said that he soon realised that he “had to do this”, as this was Bloodhound’s USP. The defence, aerospace and motor industry all keep their data secret. Noble said having made the decision, he struck lucky in South Africa, and was backed by the Northern Cape government and Africa’s largest mobile network provider, MTN.

MTN erected four 17 metre high radio masts in a South African desert, which means they could take the data off of the cars and bounce it into an internet portal. The project began to grow and grow, and before long, Bloodhound was being followed in 230 countries.

A technology partner

However, given the project’s growth, Bloodhound needed a new technology partner to step in to help distribute the data and make it workable for the students using it - which is where Oracle comes in.

And why did Oracle decide to get involved? John Abel, head of technology and cloud for Oracle UK, Ireland and Israel, explained:

For us, we felt that there was a good harmony with the data company, that spent 40 years in industry, connecting with the land speed record company that's going to achieve the next land speed record and say actually, "Imagine if we, together, created the next generation of students that became next IT professionals."

And the problem with our industry at the moment, like every industry, we've lost the art to inspire the next generation. And there's very few things that the next generation, or even the current generation, can latch onto that is different from the day job. And Bloodhound is certainly different from the day job.

So for us to have a platform that we can expose the data to a global stem program without any barriers of NDAs, without any of the challenges around corporate IP, and let students gain their own experiences. The goal of this is that, within the same time frame as the team seeing the data, the students can start experimenting with data. So you imagine the landscape. When we visually see the data for the first time, not too long after, those students will be seeing it. They'll be exploring it.

All of the technology will be running on Oracle’s Bare Metal Cloud service.  It will use artificial intelligence from Oracle Cloud to start looking for discrepancies between the planned result and what was expected. And then as more and more data sets are on-boarded, machine learning will be used to start understanding actually how the car is performing. All of the accessibility by students will be dominated by open source.

However, Abel has a vision for how the data will be used by students in schools. Far from a data dump being handed over in Excel, Oracle wants the students to be able to interact with it in new and interesting ways. He said:

And the data isn't just car data from the 550 plus sensors, we've got spatial data, weather data. They'll be able to blend different types of data. Then the next challenge comes is, how do we show it? I was brought up in the spreadsheet era, so columns and rows. This generation is all about gamification, it's about interaction. So we're striving to show the data in augmented reality, virtual reality. We're allowing the students to actually get inside the data.

The goal, if you can picture it, would be a student with a virtual reality headset on, standing next Bloodhound at 1,000 miles and hour, popping one of the back boards off and having a look at the data coming out the car. That's a very different experience than the one I grew up in education. The reason we're using all these different visuals, is really to inspire diversity and a wider incumbents and use of the data. So if we go for different techniques and aim at different types of the community and diverse groups globally, then they're actually going to get what they want out of it, not what we provide them out of it.

Bloodhound will be doing two years of high speed runs. Towards the end of 2018, the aim is to get to approximately 800 mph. The project will then pause at that point, because the vehicle will have achieved material supersonic airflow, and the team can use the data to relate to the data and research it has collected over the past five years. Bloodhound will then go back again in 2019 to target the 1000 mph record.

However, despite the focus very much being on the record, Noble is passionate about this inspiring the next generation. He finished by saying:

We're going to see innovation on an extraordinary scale as people get going. And we have this theory: there's going to be a kid in the Lake District, who is going to get the data. We're going to be struggling with something, which we don't think we can solve, and the kid will come back and say, "If you do this, this, and this ..." We'll think, "Krikey. That'll work." So that's great if something like happens. That's a really terrific story.

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