The quest to break the world land speed record is a long and winding road that leads to South Africa – and is designed to inspire school kids everywhere with a love of science and technology, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK
There can be few more desolate places in the world than Hakskeen Pan, a flat, endless dried-out lake bed in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, near the border with Botswana and Namibia.
But that is precisely what has propelled it into the international spotlight. It is one of the few places in the world that is isolated enough, flat enough, and with the right terrain to support a bold quest.
The crust of the lake bed at Haksteen Pan is ideal for an attempt not only on the world landspeed record, but for the first land vehicle to travel at 1 600 kilometres per hour. Project Bloodhound will stretch the limits of a vehicle on wheels far beyond what was ever thought possible.
The man behind the project, the crusty British racing veteran Richard Noble, is no stranger to absurdly extreme feats like this.
“We’ve got a long history of doing it,” he said in an interview last week. “I broke the world land speed record in 1983. After that, we were up against the Americans to achieve the first ever supersonic ride in 1997, and we succeeded. In this case, we’re increasing the land speed record by a whopping 30%, and we’re convinced we can do it.”
The pilot will be Andy Green, but a vast team of engineers, researchers and other specialists has come together in pursuit of the vision.
“We’ve gone through a very difficult phase,” he said. “The weakness of a project like this is the finances. It’s a long-term project because of its considerable investment in terms of engineering. There have been a whole lot of financial setbacks, but the team has held together. In a lesser organisation people would have just walked, but they’ve absolutely stuck together.”
In the next two weeks, the car will go through its most critical test yet.
“We’ve got to get the car into what we call runway form, and where we work in Bristol is unsuitable for running a jet engine. So we will be running it in Newquay in Cornwall to prove that the car works and runs, but at this stage we will go no faster than 200 miles per hour.”
Part of the challenge is that the project is no longer only about engineering, as it was back in 1983 and 1997.
This time round, it remains as important, but is joined by technology that had barely arrived back then: the Internet, high-speed mobile connectivity, database software, and a wide variety of environmental sensors.
This combination means that the Bloodhound SSC (for supersonic car) will produce a massive amount of data that will be accessible instantly, worldwide. And that, in turn, will be used for one of the most ambitious global attempts inspire schoolchildren to want to learn about the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The car is being built and tested in the United Kingdom, but the project depends on Hakskeen Pan.
While the terrain provided the needed long, flat landscape and the right surface, it was also littered with rocks and stones. So the first essential piece of work was to clear the area by hand. The local Mier community was employed to do the job. Last year, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) presented certificates of recognition to over 300 members of the community for “the largest area of land ever cleared by hand for a motorsports activity”. They had removed 16 000 tonnes of rock from 22 million square metres of dry lake bed.
Project Bloodhound announced: “Their amazing work has been a vital part of building the world’s fastest race track and means that next year Andy Green can drive Bloodhound SSC at over 1400kph in Northern Cape, South Africa, without worrying about a single stray rock damaging the Car.”
The attempt, set for 2018, should have been made during 2017, but ran into a hitch and, Noble admitted in an interview last week, it was not a technical one. He had just presented a keynote address on the project at Oracle OpenWorld, a massive annual conference in San Francisco, where more than 60 000 people come to learn about the latest offerings from global database software giant Oracle. The company had already committed to providing the technology platform needed to share the car’s massive data output with the world.
At the event, Oracle’s president of product development, Thomas Kurian, announced that the company’s educational arm, Oracle Academy, would partner with Project Bloodhound to popularise STEM subjects.
“Effectively, Oracle is educating the world,” said Noble. “The idea came from the US manned space programme. When you study what happened with the Apollo programme, you see this enormous growth in the emergence of scientists, engineers and mathematicians as a result of interest in space flight.
“We were working so hard taking project Bloodhound forward, we didn’t have time to look over shoulder to see what we’d achieved. We asked the University of Swansea, which is working with us on the aerodynamics of Bloodhound, for a letter telling us what had happened as a result of the project.
“They said their engineering applications and intake were up 150% directly as a result of their work on Bloodhound. Intake of aerodynamics students was up 350%. The value of Bloodhound, to them, was 5-million pounds every year. Kids were coming from the USA to study at Swansea.”
Another research partner in the project, the University of Western England, saw even greater benefit: they valued the benefits of their work on Bloodhound over ten years at 77-million pounds.
“We were staggered. We had no idea this was the scale of what we were doing. The STEM education system had all but collapsed and the kids all wanted to be singers and dancers. They saw physics as impossible and teachers were really struggling. Inspiring children is the unique selling proposition of Project Bloodhound.”
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.
Online retail gets real
After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.
Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.
The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.
This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping.
But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.
On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.
He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.
According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.
In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature.
Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.
A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand.
In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.
Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.
It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time.
It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.
Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.
The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.
Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.
Reliable satellite Internet?
MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.
Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company.
“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.
The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.
The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022.
The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data.
C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.
MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity. Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.
Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content.
The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.
Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online.
“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”