Winning formula

Malcolm Roberts heads a division of BAE Systems that has helped put McLaren on the podium and also enabled the aerospace firm to bring state-of-the-art F1 technologies to aircraft.

Not many companies can claim to use a Formula One racing car as a test rig. But, thanks to a partnership with McLaren, BAE Systems is using the team’s racing car to trial emerging technologies and gain valuable operating hours for its systems in the tough conditions of an F1 track. In return, the aerospace and defence company provides McLaren with access to its engineers and technologies.

At first glance the two appear to be worlds apart. F1 teams introduce a new car each season, and from initial concept designs through to final production the vehicles take around 25 weeks to develop. Military aircraft in contrast take closer to 25 years.

Racing teams also constantly tweak components throughout the season in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of performance from their cars, while the huge cost of today’s fighter jet programmes means any change must make a significant improvement to the aircraft to be considered worthwhile.

But racing cars have more in common with jet fighters than you might expect, according to Malcolm Roberts, BAE Systems’ technology manager for partnerships, the MoD and research agencies.

‘Every part on the car is either designed to its weight limit or to meet the available regulations. They are working right at the very edge of technology, and that allies very much with what we want to do,’ he said.

The relationship was established eight years ago, when McLaren was having difficulty winning races. BAE’s engineers helped to improve the aerodynamics of the front wing, eliminating handling difficulties, and Mika Hakkinen went on to win his first world championship title in 1998, and a second in 1999.

Since then the partnership has expanded to cover a wide range of areas, and the teams are now working on around 15 engineering programmes together, said Roberts. ‘There is probably nothing that we don’t help them with throughout the whole of the car, and that includes the engine and engine-management systems, and the tyre technology.’

As well as allowing BAE to tap into Mclaren’s highly developed marketing skills, and rewarding the company’s top engineers with trips to McLaren’s Woking technology centre, the partnership also enables the firm to try out new technologies it is investigating for use on-board military aircraft and missiles. Racing cars provide a particularly useful test-bed as the conditions are so harsh, especially for electronic systems, said Roberts.

Probably one of the worst environments for electromagnetic shielding is a car. It’s a very harsh environment in which to put any form of electrical or electronic computer component because of the extreme fields generated by the ignition circuits,’ he said.

One recent technology programme the two teams worked on involved the development of a system to analyse data from the racing car’s 250 on-board sensors. Checking each of these sensors to determine if they’re working, have failed or have slipped out of calibration is a difficult and time-consuming task for McLaren’s engineers.

So the BAE team came up with a system to automate this process, based on a combination of data fusion and statistical pattern recognition techniques. It analysed historical data from each sensor to gain a profile of the devices in full working order, allowing them to spot the signs of failure or calibration problems.

The team then used neural network technology, software capable of learning from experience, to train the system to recognise poor data being transmitted from any of the sensors. ‘It’s analogous to a genetic code for each individual sensor. You establish a pattern for what is in range for the information coming back, and anything that is out of range is looked on with suspicion as a potentially poor sensor.

‘The data all comes back via telemetry from the car to the garage, to allow the engineers to look at it. What we were seeing was the information automatically singling out individual sensors for attention — they needed either to be removed or recalibrated,’ he said.

The system, through which McLaren can now add or change different sensors, took just six to eight weeks to develop. Most of the information was already available and just needed to be organised into a useable form. But in this short period it provided BAE with a large amount of information that it’s now able to feed into its data-fusion work for the Ministry of Defence. ‘It’s quite difficult to get very large amounts of coherent data that you can use to develop these sort of algorithms. There is a large [MoD] programme called Network Enabled Capability (NEC), and although this is not directly related to that, the same sort of algorithms will be used both in learning and statistical pattern recognition,’ said Roberts.

Another emerging technology the partnership is allowing BAE to test is the direct writing of electronic conducting tracks on to metal, plastic or carbon-fibre substrates. This will allow wiring and circuitry to be printed directly on to the surface of aircraft, reducing weight and increasing the amount of available space, by removing the need to place the circuits on to flat PCBs before fitting them to the aircraft. BAE is investigating direct writing at its Advanced Technology Centre in Filton near Bristol, as part of its Strategic Options Programme, which provides significant funding to technologies that the company believes to be particularly promising.

‘At the moment the first major areas we would plan to use it in are unmanned aerial vehicles, and I know the missile people would also like to have it for their control systems, to replace wiring harnesses. There is a huge amount of weight there, and if we can write the tracks on to the base material we can reduce that weight,’ said Roberts.

This year the company built a machine capable of depositing the conducting material on to substrates, based on inkjet printing techniques, in which components are added to the ink to provide the desired properties.

‘In the case of McLaren we not only want to write the wires but also strain gauges. So this year we have written basic wires on to the suspension components and next year we will write the strain gauges, again on to the carbon-fibre surface.’

Both BAE and McLaren are keen to expand the programme. McLaren in particular would like to get rid of all wires around the car, as this would improve the aerodynamics, potentially shaving vital hundredths of a second off lap times. But there are still difficulties to be resolved, including how to maintain or add to the circuitry once it has been written on to the surface.

A further challenge is to ensure that the components within the ink have the exact physical parameters needed to build the wire, including its resistance, the temperatures it can withstand and whether it requires electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) shielding. Once the team has gained experience writing basic components BAE plans to move on to other circuits such as resistors and capacitors, and eventually small batteries to provide the power to some components.

‘It’s quite an exciting technology for us, but it is right at the beginning, and there are all sorts of reliability and maintainability problems that need to be sorted out,’ said Roberts. ‘So we believe the only thing to do is to utilise some of these techniques in a vehicle in a very demanding environment. That’s why it helps us to use the McLaren car.’

On the web