In the world of professional auto racing, it takes more than a fast car to land a spot on the podium.
Update (5/31/16): Rookie driver Alexander Rossi has won a series of races for Andretti Autosport over the past week, including the 100th running of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. DigiPen is proud to work with the talented team at Andretti Autosport and build technology that helps their drivers succeed.
It also takes a skilled racer, a practiced pit crew, a team of knowledgeable strategists and engineers, and — in the modern era — a near-endless stream of data that informs the team’s collective decision making, both before and during the race.
For close to the past decade, a team of DigiPen faculty and alumni have played a role in this shift toward a more data-driven sport. As members of the DigiPen Research and Development group (DigiPen R&D), an internal division that operates in both Redmond and Singapore, they work to create custom software and technology solutions for a wide range of global industry partners — including two auto racing brands.
“The technologies that we build [for our racing clients] are primarily focused on real-time race visualization and strategy analysis,” says Christopher Comair, DigiPen Institute of Technology’s Director of Business Development. “We try to analyze every aspect of all the cars on the track and try to figure out the best possible scenario for our cars to win a race.”
DigiPen’s involvement in the sport began in 2006, when the R&D team was invited to work with Renault Sport Formula One Team (formerly known as Lotus F1 Team) on the development of a new software platform that could capture and process the data from a newly available GPS feed.
That data, which provided the global positioning for each vehicle in the race, offered the Formula One teams a brand new look at how an event was unfolding in real-time. It was left to the individual teams, however, to decide how to use that information to their advantage.
“Back when we began working in Formula One, things were surprisingly basic. There was a lot going on with stopwatches and notepads. The advanced guys were using spreadsheets on their laptops, but that was about it,” Comair says. “It was kind of funny seeing it for the first time, because with all these state-of-the-art technologies going into building the cars, engines, and whatnot, people were still running around doing all these very complicated race-time strategies by hand.”
With the GPS data as a starting point, the R&D team worked closely with Renault on the design and development of a software platform that could present the information as cleanly and accurately as possible — allowing for multiple views and customization options. The software, described by team members as a “race dashboard system,” quickly became adopted by several members of the Renault team.
From the 2008 season onward, the software platform contributed to more than 40 podium finishes on the international Formula One circuit.
Throughout that time, DigiPen’s R&D members made regular updates and improvement to the software platform, introducing greater functionality and all-new forms of data measurement.
“Everything in racing is literally very fast paced. Everybody involved is always trying to improve something,” Comair says. “If the engine gets improved, the strategy changes. If the tires get improved, the strategy changes. If the weather changes, the strategy changes. The key for us is making a platform that can adapt to all these things faster than other teams can.”
Today, the R&D team continues to build on the success of their original project.
Beginning in 2015, DigiPen launched a new partnership with Andretti Autosport, supplying similar software technology for use in the American-based INDYCAR series. That partnership was officially reinstated for the 2016 INDYCAR season.
Even as their work continues to make an impact on some of the biggest stages in all of motorsports — as well other global industries in aerospace, commercial software development, and more — the faculty and alumni who make up the DigiPen R&D team also bring their experience directly to the classroom.
“Most members of R&D are either instructors or participate in some aspect of curriculum development. We are also all graduates of DigiPen programs, so it is very easy for us to pinpoint which topics need to be introduced or updated,” Comair says. “We are always looking for new ways to better prepare our students.”
As more and more industries adapt to the big-data transformation, Comair says the opportunity for engineers and computer scientists to build new tools for information analysis and simulation will only increase. It’s just one of many areas, he says, where DigiPen graduates are well-suited to contribute.
“I can very honestly say that our graduates are geared to be successful in almost any technology development field. Formula One and INDYCAR racing are only a couple examples of the things our graduates are prepared to do,” Comair says. “I know alumni working on things from asteroid mining to smart phones and everything in between. Almost every single industry is requiring software development these days. Even cars are smart.”
Photos in this article were provided by LAT USA.