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.
Samsung unleashes the beast
Most new smartphone releases of the past few years have been like cat-and-mouse games with consumers and each other. It has been as if morsels of cheese are thrown into the box to make it more interesting: a little extra camera here, a little more battery there, and incremental changes to size, speed (more) and weight (less). Each change moves the needle of innovation ever-so-slightly. Until we find ourselves, a few years later, with a handset that is revolutionary compared to six years ago, but an anti-climax relative to six months before.
And then came Samsung. Probably stung by the “incremental improvement” phrase that has become almost a cliché about new Galaxy devices, the Korean giant chose to unleash a beast last week.
The new Galaxy Note 9 is not only the biggest smartphone Samsung has ever released, but one of the biggest flagship handsets that can still be called a phone. With a 6.4” display, it suddenly competes with mini-tablets and gaming consoles, among other devices that had previously faced little contest from handsets.
It offers almost ever cutting edge introduced to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones earlier this year, including the market-leading f1.5 aperture lens, and an f2.4. telephoto lens, each weighing in at 12 Megapixels. The front lens is equally impressive, with an f1.7 aperture – first introduced on the Note 8 as the widest yet on a selfie camera.
So far, so S9. However, the Note range has always been set apart by its S Pen stylus, and each edition has added new features. Born as a mere pen that writes on screens, it evolved through the likes of pressure sensitivity, allowing for artistic expression, and cut-and-paste text with translation-on-the-fly.
(Click here or below to read more about the Samsung Galaxy S Pen stylus) Samsung Galaxy S9 Features)
SA ride permit system ‘broken’
Despite the amendments to the National Land Transport Act, ALON LITS, General Manager, Uber in Sub Saharan Africa, believes that many premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.
The spirit and intention of the amendments to the National Land Transport Act No 5 (NLTA), 2009 put forward by the Ministry of Transport are to be commended. It is especially pleasing that these amendments include ridesharing and e-hailing operators and drivers as legitimate participants in the country’s public transport system, which point to government’s willingness to embrace the changes and innovation taking place in the country’s transport industry.
However, there are aspects of the proposed amendments that are, at best, premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.
Of particular concern are the significant financial penalties that will need to be paid by ridesharing and e-hailing companies whose independent operators are found to be transporting passengers without a legal permit issued by the relevant local authority. These fines can be as high as R100 000 per driver operating without a permit. Apart from being an excessive penalty it is grossly unfair given that a large number of local authorities don’t yet have functioning permit issuing systems and processes in place.
The truth is that the operating permit issuance system in South Africa is effectively broken. The application and issuance processes for operating licenses are fundamentally flawed and subject to extensive delays, sometimes over a year in length. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is very difficult for applicants whose permit applications haven’t yet been approved to get reasons for the extensive delays on the issuing of those permits.
Uber has had extensive first-hand experience with the frustratingly slow process of applying for these permits, with drivers often having to wait months and, in some cases more than a year, for their permits.
Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency amongst local authorities to prioritise fixing the flawed permit issuing systems and processes or address the large, and growing, backlogs of permit applications. As such, in order for the proposed stringent permit enforcement rules to be effective and fair to all role players, the long-standing issues around permit issuance first need to be addressed. At the very least, before the proposed legislation amendments are implemented, the National Transport Ministry needs to address the following issues:
- Efficient processes and systems must be put in place in all local authorities to allow drivers to easily apply for the operating permits they require
- Service level agreements need to be put in place with local authorities whereby they are required to assess applications and issue permits within the prescribed 60-day period.
- Local authorities need to be given deadlines by which their current permit application backlogs must be addressed to allow for faster processing of new applications once the amendments are promulgated.
If the Transport Ministry implements the proposed legislation amendments before ensuring that these permit issuance challenges are addressed, many drivers will be faced with the difficult choice of either having to operate illegally whilst awaiting their approved permits and risking significant fines and/or arrest, or stopping operations until they receive their permits, thereby losing what is, for many of them, their only source of income.
As such, if the Ministry of Transport is not able to address these particular challenges, it is only reasonable to ask it to reconsider this amendment and delay its implementation until the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure it does not impact negatively on the country’s transport industry. The legislators must have been aware of the challenges of passing such a significant law, as the Amendment Bill allows for the Minister to use his discretion to delay implementation of provisions for up to 5 years.
Fair trade and healthy competition are the cornerstones of any effective and growing economy. However, these clauses (Section 66 (7) and Section 66A) of the NLTA amendment, as well as the proposal that regulators be given authority to define the geographic locations or zones in which vehicles may operate, are contrary to the spirit of both. As a good corporate citizen, Uber is committed to supplementing and enhancing South Africa’s national transport system and contributing positively to the industry. If passed into law without the revisions suggested above, these new amendments will limit our business and many others from playing the supportive roles we all can, and should, in growing the SA transport and tourism industries as well as many other key economic sectors.
What’s more, if passed as they currently stand, the amendments will effectively limit South African consumers from having full access to the range of convenient transport options they deserve; which has the potential to harm the reputation and credibility of the entire transport industry.