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Red Bull Air Race Takes Flight with Data from Planes’ ‘Black Boxes’

Aviation buffs are familiar with the terms Electronic Flight Instrument System and Position Reporting Unit, but the EFIS and PRU used in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship are unlike any others.

Technical Director Jim “Jimbo” Reed describes the PRU – an unassuming black box he can hold in one hand – as effectively the brain of our Red Bull Air Race-specific equipment.” These black boxes will be in all race planes competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway round of the series Oct. 6-7.

General areas monitored include:

Attitude and heading reference with an advanced Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) using:

  • Accelerometers (acceleration in the three axes of the aircraft, X-Y-Z)
  • Gyros (angular rates – roll, pitch and yaw)
  • Magnetometers (attitude in relation to the Earth’s magnetic field)

Engine parameters (everything from RPM to cylinder and exhaust temperatures, fuel and smoke-oil flows, manifold pressure, and fuel and oil pressures)

Position data (including altitude, the third dimension that makes the sport so unique)

In all, the PRU records up to 40 different aircraft performance parameters, some of them at a rate of 1,000 times per second.

“All of this provides us an exact position and attitude of the aircraft in real time,” Reed said. “Additionally, we have two onboard cameras – a camera on the race plane tail and a face cam to give a view of the pilot – as well as an audio signal, to deliver live pictures and sound from the race plane.”

So who gets this data and information? In short, there are three recipients – the judges in Race Control, the TV team that broadcasts each race, and the pilots and race teams.

“Aside from the live judging pictures, the judges use the information from the PRU to monitor aircraft speed, bank and pitch angles, RPM and G,” Reed said. “The high-precision position data is also used to create the amazing ghost plane that you can see when watching the Red Bull Air Race on TV.”

Meanwhile, through its screen the EFIS provides invaluable data for the immediate use of pilots in the racetrack, and the PRU logs that same data for the detailed analysis of their race teams once they land. The custom system was initially developed from a standard piece of avionics kit and has evolved over the years to provide specific telemetric inputs for the racing environment.

In the cockpit are a range of instruments designed to give the pilot critical information in a split-second to enable instinctive judgments. Three phased screens serve up data pre-race, live in action and post-race; and an F1-style LED lighting strip also provides a customizable indication of speed and G forces while in flight.

After each flying session, detailed timing sheets are produced with racetrack sector times and speeds, among other parameters. This allows for in-depth review between flights, whether it’s intensive study overnight between Qualifying and Race Day, or a rapid search for potential improvements in the brief moments between the rounds of the race itself.

The ever-increasing quality and quantity of this data has changed the sport, putting an emphasis on strategy and tactics in addition to the sheer skill of the pilot.

“This is what makes it much more attractive to real motorsport fans," said Sport Technical Manager Álvaro Navas, who worked in telemetry with MotoGP before becoming involved in the Red Bull Air Race in 2007.

Virtually every one of the 14 Red Bull Air Race teams now boasts at least one expert tactician to analyze the data, often loading it right into laptop simulator software for the pilot.

“The race teams can take the data from the PRU and have access to all onboard information like trajectories between gates, G forces, speed and all the timing data the judges used to assess their runs, which is sent from ground up to the aircraft, as well,” Navas said.

Race teams have been instrumental in helping Navas and his colleagues develop the systems, providing input on measurements to add to the mix – like wind speed and direction – and suggesting alternative types of gauge customization. The ongoing collaboration and push for innovation has truly made the World Championship a new dimension in motorsport.

Or as Jimbo Reed said, “Without some clever black boxes, the Red Bull Air Race as we know it would not exist.”

Visit IMS.com to buy tickets or for more information about the Red Bull Air Race.

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