Gilberto Nobili is an IT guy, but he doesn't sit in an office like other information technology workers. His workspace skims across San Francisco Bay at 50 miles per hour.
The Java developer and Oracle Team USA crew member is using personal electronics like smartphones and tablets to give his side a high-tech edge in the upcoming America's Cup regatta between the most advanced sailboats ever built.
The tech-savvy 6-foot-3 inch Italian is one of Oracle's muscular grinders. A grinder uses brute strength and athletic conditioning to crank handles furiously on winches that precisely control the tall “wing” sails and other adjustable parts of these complex 72-foot catamarans.
The boats are designed to lift out of the water at high speed and hydrofoil on the dagger boards, which are raised and lowered from each hull.
“We're still testing stuff, deciding which is the faster board and the faster sail. As sailors, we go by feeling but we also need numbers. The final call about what is fastest comes from the numbers,” said Nobili, who put his engineering studies on hold 13 years ago for a chance to sail professionally.
After Swedish challenger Artemis Racing suffered a fatal accident in May when its catamaran broke apart and flipped, a top priority for Cup participants has been to strike the best balance between speed and stability. Onboard electronics play a key part.
Advances in technology, including computational fluid dynamics and the ability to process growing amounts of data, have given boat designers advantages they could have only dreamed of in past America's Cups.
The Louis Vuitton Cup starts in July and will determine which of three teams challenge previous winner Oracle, backed by software billionaire Larry Ellison. The finals are set for September.
Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill depends on real-time information from Nobili and others to optimize the performance of the boats, referred to as AC72s, which many experts believe are too hard to maneuver in San Francisco Bay's heavy winds and rip currents.
Each AC72 is covered in hundreds of sensors measuring pressure from wind, water and the hydraulics used to control its sails, dagger boards and rudders.
Fiber-optic cables built into the hull and other parts of the boat minutely measure how much different sections flex due to water pressure.
All of that is fed into an onboard computer custom-built with an Intel Atom chip. That computer crunches data and then sends out information to more than 30 Android mobile devices on board, including smartphones strapped to each sailor's arm and tablets strategically placed near winches and other boat controls.