Industry Interview, Interviews, Issue 50 - Autumn 2013

Industry Interview with Richard Noble on the Bloodhound SSC

The Bloodhound SSC team is planning to take its purpose-built car over 1,000 mph and to a new land speed record at a site in South Africa in 2016. Richard Noble, who held the land speed record himself between 1983 and 1997, is directing the project. Mark Chapman is taking care of the engineering side. Dave Leggett talked to both of them about getting to their ambitious goal.

DL: Richard, can I start by asking you about your role and main responsibilities on the project?

RN: I am the director of the company so I am totally responsible for all activities of the company.

DL: Can you describe a typical day?

RN: Well, it starts early, at 5:00 am. You never know quite what’s coming next but I like to keep a handle on the accounts and I have all the running balances in front of me. And I deal with the invoices and with paying the bills. There are also sponsorship deals going on, five or six major ones at any one time, and there is also the education team. There have been some changes in the education team which has meant some recruitments, so all that’s going on also.

We have a major digital programme in development now, so there’s a lot going on with that, too, with various deals.

It’s a huge myriad of activities, inspiring and exciting.

DL: What are the educational team involved with and how did that come about?

RN: Well, we set up to develop and build and produce a Mach 1.4 car. We decided that we would produce the most advanced car possible and the key to that is the Eurojet EJ200 jet engine, a highly sophisticated military turbofan normally found in the engine bay of a Eurofighter Typhoon. It is very light, very fuel efficient and it’s got a small cross-sectional area.

Andy Green and myself were fortunate enough to have a meeting with Lord Drayson, the then minister for defence, equipment and support in the last government. We wanted an engine and he wasn’t about to let us have that…

He noted, however, that the Ministry of Defence was having trouble recruiting engineers and that there was a need to generate interest in engineering among young people that was formerly served by the military technological activity associated with the Cold War, the aerospace industry’s products, like the supersonic Lightning, Harrier, Vulcan aircraft and so on. He went on to say that these aircraft were constantly being seen by kids…

But once the Cold War was over, that stimulation was turned off, which is where Bloodhound comes in and taking our project out to schools, to inspire children, that was Lord Drayson’s idea.

We have now got 5,452 schools on the Bloodhound educational project.

It works very well because basically almost every family has got a car. The kids know what a car is, so they can identify with what we are striving to achieve. On top of the schools in the US, we also now have 300 schools in South Africa and the project is now being followed in 220 countries, in fact, every country in the world with the exception of North Korea and the Vatican City.

DL: This educational aspect to your activities sounds pretty important…

RN: Yes, it is. Another point is that it also helps our sponsors with their corporate social responsibility requirements. So that’s an added bonus to the Bloodhound sponsorship proposition. We’re obviously grateful to Lord Drayson who came up with the original idea and it’s at the centre of what we are about; it’s absolutely terrific and we couldn’t do without the education, put it that way.

DL: So, how does it work?

RN: There’s a dedicated team of twelve, who are full-time. We have a show car, which is a full-scale model and that visits exhibitions and schools and does between 50,000 and 60,000 miles every year. The key focus is primary schools, because that’s when you have got to get the kids really interested in science and engineering. So, to give you an idea, we have made about 60,000 balloon cars – they make balloon cars and then race them. They also build rocket cars. The playground rocket land speed record was originally 88 mph and it is now 204 mph, so they’re really pushing hard…there is quite a battle between the South Africans and the Brits there…

What we are starting to see is a completely new culture. With the 5,000+ schools we’re talking about 1.5 million school kids and we’re going to get quite a few engineers out of that, so it’s going to deliver big time.

DL: How many people do you have in the whole team?

RN: It’s sixty full-time people, in total, at the moment. It’s a small team to do a project on this sort of scale. To describe the resourcing more generally, in terms of overall costs, around 75% goes into engineering, research, design and build, and 25% is support work, non-educational.

DL: It’s obviously a complex proposition, from an engineering point of view?

RN: Oh yes, make no mistake about that. This car is as complex as a modern jet fighter and built to a very high standard indeed. We’re building down at Avonmouth with a 25,000 sq ft facility. It is absolutely fascinating; I get down there about once a week and you see the quality of this thing; it is very, very special indeed.

DL: Assuming that you are successful with the mission objective, reaching the target land speed record, what happens then? What’s next?

RN: The lead then passes to our main sponsors and we say ‘guys what do you want to do with it now?’.

Something to bear in mind is that the key to the whole project is ‘open data’. The teachers we engaged with early on said ‘we don’t want this treated in the traditional British way, photos and press releases and so on. We want real data!’ Our initial reaction was that we couldn’t possibly do that, but then we thought about it we realised that we were in a unique position. The FIA rules for land speed records just stipulate that you must have a driver and a vehicle with four wheels. It deliberately is non-specific to allow for maximum innovation. That being the case, the competitive vehicles in this area are all very, very different, so our technology simply does not transfer. We then realised that this was the magic key to the whole thing, that we could make all of our data available and that this would help our educational side and sponsorships and would
not help the competition.

If you think about it, the defence sector can’t do this and neither can highly competitive areas of motorsport such as F1 where there has to be secrecy on data.

Every time the car runs we are going to download, from the car live, 300 data channels and three video channels. It’s quite an undertaking because when we are in South Africa we will be running from a remote desert; the radio masts (five of them, each 60 metres high, concrete footings the size of a bungalow) are going up at the moment. The data channels will involve pressures, loads, temperatures and so on.

The idea is that all over the world, kids will be able to study this and understand exactly what is happening as it happens.

DL: So what’s the timeline for the project?

RN: We have got it under control now. We hoped to get it together in 2014, but we’re not going to do that. We’re now going to get the car in quarter two of 2015, so that’s an extra year’s worth of work and funding but we have had to just bite that and get on with it.

So, second quarter of 2015 is the rollout of the car here. Then we have to do UK trials to get it sorted out, make sure that everything works all right, that should be around two months. We have the use of a runway to enable us to run up to about 200 mph, light the afterburner and that’s about it. We will then fly straight out to South Africa. We’ll probably be on the desert there for about three months, the great thing there is that the desert has an eight month weather window, in America with the Thrust Projects we only had a six week weather window, which made everything absolutely frantic.

It’s great that we can be operational for up to three months in South Africa.

The objective in 2015 is to get the car supersonic. Once we have done that, we’ll bring the car back home for a re-work and modifications to get back to South Africa and finish the job in 2016. That’s the plan.

DL: Mark, can you explain the main engineering challenges of the Bloodhound project?

MC: The main challenge, with something like the land speed record is that there is no rule book or reference base. It really is a clean sheet of paper. The fixed things are the propulsion system, the engines, and then you have to put it all together in a shape that will go very fast. It’s not like an aircraft or an F1 car, where you have some clues from past work. Also, you might be able to look across the paddock to competitors. There are very many land speed cars but they are all very different vehicles. The starting point is the propulsion system. Once you have that, then you have to work around it to produce a vehicle that is stable, with low drag and keeps the driver safe.

We’re doing it all for the first time and in a unique way.

DL: I’m curious about the gestation of the project. When was the car designed?

MC: Somewhere around 2006 work started and to begin with it was a pure rocket car, but the drawback with them is that they are hard to drive slowly, so it’s difficult to build up your speed gradually in a safe way. They tend to be either on or off. So fairly early on it was then decided that we wanted a jet car with a rocket for the additional power. The main issue with the jet engine is the intake and achieving a smooth flow where the engine face is. Initially we had two intakes, but eventually we changed the design to a single intake. The early car had the jet engine below and an ‘s’-shaped intake duct. We did a lot of work to straighten that out and drop Andy as low as possible in the car. The job after deciding on the design of the propulsion system is to work on all the packaging, the nuts and bolts, to make the whole thing work.

DL: Is there a point at which the car design is ‘signed off’ and fixed?

MC: No, it doesn’t really work like that, it is constantly being changed and tweaked, adjusted – a very iterative process as we proceed. It will be finished when the car runs in South Africa. There are certain windows we have to hit, for manufacturing say. But even now we are not at a stage where we have a complete scheme of a car. Some areas of the car are finished, but others are not. Maybe a third of the car’s structure is done, but there are still areas of the car where we are designing concepts, and that has to fit with what is already coming together

It’s a small team and we don’t have the luxury of doing a complete scheme and employing a vast team to make a signed off design work. It’s constantly iterating, with blocks of the car getting done and released, completed, while other things are still being worked on or even designed around what’s already been done.

DL: How much is done in-house and how much is outsourced?

MC: The iterative process I have described can make it difficult for traditional outsourcing ways of working. Design is best handled in-house as far as possible. In general, motorsports engineers are used to turning things around quickly, but the timescales (product lifecycles in aerospace), where we are here in Bristol, tend to be much longer.

DL: In terms of engineering fundamentals, would you describe this kind of project as being more motorsport or aerospace based?

MC: It’s part racing car, part jet-fighter and part space-ship. It kind of uses bits and pieces from all of these areas. The fast rate of design and getting things done is very much motorsport end of the market. Aerospace is more about precise things such as load case, well known regulations and requirements, plenty of history. So, for example, there’s the old A320 and you’re doing the ‘new’ A320. It’s an evolution with a rigid set of rules for, say, bolt pitch or rivet pitch, materials used.

We do take a lot of input from aerospace side – fatigue, margins, safety aspects. We are not doing a prototype racing car or something to test; the one car is the end-product. We are only building one car, so it has to be successful in all aspects of performance. But obviously, unlike an airliner, if a bit breaks the car rolls to a halt, Andy gets out and we can fix the failed part, so in that development sense it’s maybe a bit like a racing car.

The duty cycle for the Rolls-Royce engine on Bloodhound is 2 minutes. It’s not doing a two-hour sortie. In its whole life it is only going to run for about an hour or two. Losing power is not catastrophic the way it could be in an aircraft, so that creates a different set of parameters to work to.

DL: Managing the vehicle system ‘blocks’, the process of engineering and manufacturing – does it all happen more or less simultaneously?

MC: Doing everything at the same time, developing the car at the same pace across the board would take forever. We have to focus on sections. So, we have a scheme concept level at which we know everything works. Now, we are concentrated on finishing modules. We have finished the lower structure of the car, it has been designed, released, manufactured and built. That’s a complete module done. We are just about to release the front suspension for manufacture. That’s a nice, tidy module that will come into the workshop and be built up. Once we have those big primary structure building blocks, the suspension, infrastructure of the comfort area and big chassis components done, then the focus moves to the internal stuff.

We have the scheme concept on CAD and the inside of the car, on a one-off like this tooling is a bit of a luxury, we’ll end up using the car as a tool. We’ve only got one monocoque, so we can use soft tooling, we can fettle for exact fit to the structure we have rather than have a lot of production jigs for manufacturing identical parts. We just have the one vehicle that a part has to be right for. We can use the actual car as a tool when it comes to internal things like looms, tanks and pipework.

DL: How does the remaining schedule look in terms of workload on the engineering and manufacturing side?

MC: Well, there’s quite a bit left. The final components for assembly will be forward structure parts in the spring of 2015. From a design perspective, I am currently recruiting and trying to increase the design resource to spit drawings out as quickly as possible. There’s one area of design effort that needs to happen that will be ongoing for the next 6-9 months. After that, all of the major design work is completed and we’re into working on manufacturing. The team we have at the moment will be flat out for the next 18 months and as we get to the early part of 2015, the amount of design effort on the car will reduce, but by then we’ll have ramped up the effort for the support and turnaround equipment. So, as we get the car sorted out, the workload gradually shifts to the ground support and turnaround equipment that we will need.

DL: Are there technology development spin-offs from the work in developing an exceptionally  high-speed vehicle such as Bloodhound?

MC: We try hard not to develop any new technology. We don’t have the time, budget and resource to do that. However, what we do, is look at a very broad range of industries and see if anyone has had to solve problems similar to the ones we face and then see if we can apply that to our car. So we are quite good at demonstrating well-known technologies outside of their normal field of use. We can showcase a raft of technologies to people who would not normally see them. For example, we have recently taken some of our motorsport supply chain to a defence show. They got to see some defence stuff and the defence people got to see us; aerospace events offer a similar opportunity to promote the broad range of skills and technologies used on the car.

We also work differently from other sectors and approach problem-solving in a different way. For example, on the body shape we had a huge issue finding a body shape that was stable at high speed. We could have gathered a lot of aerodynamic data and analysed that, but we thought it would take forever because there just isn’t the knowledge out there about land-based supersonic vehicles and ground effects. So we ended up designing an experiment that would get us to where we wanted to be in three months. That took us from a process of 18 months that involved 13 configurations that were unsuccessful, to three months on 43 configurations (by changing how we did the modelling and computational analysis). On the final set of runs we were doing eight a day and over a period of three weeks we were converging on an optimised solution. It was all about how we use mathematical models and optimisation tools to short-cut what might be a more conventional way of doing things.

We have to operate a little differently because of our resource base and the nature of our project. If we find ourselves running into a brick wall we do not ask: how much more resource do we need to solve the problem, we ask the question: are we trying to solve the correct problem, what can we do to change the problem so that it becomes one that we can solve.

DL: And it’s a highly collaborative relationship with your suppliers?

MC: Very much so. When we design components, the supplier will often be involved very early in the design process. We are trying to do this on best cost, so there’s no point in working with sponsors or suppliers and giving them a design that leads to them saying ‘that’s not how we usually do this and it has big cost implications’. We want to match the capability of manufacturing to the way the part is designed in the first place. Having their input early on is key to achieving a process that everyone is happy with.

DL: Can you give me an idea of how complex a vehicle like this really is?

MC: It’s about 10,000 drawings. But the structure is as simple as we could possibly design it. We don’t know exactly what the loads are going to be on this car as it runs across the desert. We can predict and estimate them, but we need a design that has a certain amount of flexibility. If we find that the loads are higher than we thought, there’s some capacity in the design to stiffen or strengthen in places. That’s why the rear-end of the car is a metallic structure, so that we can revise that and adjust it as we get more data and information. A lot of thought has gone into making this design as ‘robust’ as possible. As we get more information on how it runs in the first year, we really do not want to throw it all away and effectively do a new car.

DL: And Richard, final question, what’s it like to hurtle along at over 600 mph? What goes through your mind?

RN: Let’s put it this way, it’s a very mature thing. With the Thrust 2 Project, I started at 30 mph and then gradually built up to 650 mph and you’re developing both the driver and the car. The driver is very much a part of the team and it’s very much a cold-blooded exercise: there is no room for emotion. One thing we do not want is emotional drivers. Once the hatch is shut and the car is off, the rest of the team has no control over what happens next, so the temperament of the driver is vital. The driver has to be completely integrated to the team and focused on the tasks, driving exactly according to the requirements of the engineers. The engineers work out the run profile and the driver has to deliver that.

So, basically, there is no room for getting excited. It’s a very tough job, very much like a test pilot. With Bloodhound, Andy Green has been involved in the design from the beginning so he knows the car the whole way through. When I was driving, you’d go out every morning and do a 600 mph drive. After a bit it became the norm, like driving a taxi!

It’s about developing the car and the driver and eventually you get to a stage where both together are highly competitive, everything repeatable.

DL: Is it exhausting?

RN: Not physically, but mentally yes. What I found towards the end of the programme, driving at very high speeds, was that everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Your mental processes are working at maximum speed and therefore everything seems to be happening in slow motion. For instance, you start to see the details in the track coming up at 650 mph.

And then there’s the very savage deceleration and in my car [Thrust 2] the parachute was quite big for the job. We would go through extraordinary 6G deceleration losing 130 mph a second. That creates an effect called somatogravic illusion, which upsets your inner ear, your balance and makes you think you are driving vertically down towards the centre of the Earth.

DL: Do you drive fast generally, when off the track?

RN: I like to be very careful on public roads! I generally drive a VW Golf, though I do also have a Lotus Elan (1995) which I love dearly!

Writer: Dave Leggett⎢

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