Motor Sports: High Speed from High Precision

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series May 2013

From the Gasoline Alley of Alberta, Canada to the famous Gasoline Alley of the Indianapolis 500, an ambitious surveyor has brought pioneering solutions in trackside scanning and metrology to the world of international motor sports.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds” —Sir Francis Bacon

These 1,600-pound cars reach speeds upwards of 220 mph; their 3.5-liter engines produces over 600 horsepower, four to five times that of your average car; and, with a peak downforce of over 5,000 pounds on the body and airfoils, these open-wheel wonders could actually hold on to an inverted track. The evolution of the IndyCar class of race car has been one of technological innovation, and to say this has involved high-precision measurement would be an understatement. This article is not just another scanning story; while scanning is involved, this is about bridging the fields of surveying and metrology—and opening up potential markets for surveyors.

An example of how critical such high-precision measurement is (and we are not talking 0.04’ here, but more in the realm of microns) started when the FAZZT Race Team faced a conundrum with an airfoil on their flagship #77 IndyCar (a favorite of celebrated driver/owner Alex Tagliani, “Tag”). The team could not figure out why the car would perform worse when running one of the two alternate rear mainplane wings (all spares must perform equally well). The traditional templates used to test dimensional fidelity to design were not revealing any flaws. 

A sophisticated optical and laser coordinate measurement machine (CMM) was used to scan the two wings and then compare the the results with a CAD nominal. It was discovered that the two wings varied, in places, by as much as 6/1000th of an inch. Tag felt this was enough to potentially degrade peak speeds of the car by as much as 1 mph, which is more than the range of peak speeds among the top finishers. It was a construction surveyor who brought this solution trackside.

Surveying Meets Racing

May_2013_03Landmark Surveys was incorporated in Alberta in 1994. Founder Murray Roddis brought his passion for speed, precision, and technology to the firm, always looking for new ideas, tools, and markets. Purchasing the first Spectra Precision high-precision GPS unit sold in Canada, Landmark was also one of the first in Canada to implement RTK for transportation and land survey projects. 

Under the guidance of Roddis, the firm added rugged, six-wheeled vehicles for the crews; acquired scanning gear and top-end robotic total stations; and took on large contracts that included high-profile provincial highway construction and energy pipeline projects. Based on tight timelines and high precision, Roddis refers to Landmark Surveys’ reputation as being the provider of “razor’s edge” solutions. Another of his passions was to take that term to a literal level: the width of a razor’s edge was exactly where Roddis was heading in precision.

A lifelong racing enthusiast, Roddis had served as staff photographer and part owner of a popular Canadian hot rod and drag racing periodical, Northern Wheels, a few years before Landmark Surveys started. Over the years, Landmark became a contributing sponsor of various types of motor sports teams. About the time that Landmark acquired a Trimble FX scanner in 2010, Roddis’ nephew gave him a “light bulb” moment.

Roddis formed an affiliation with Fusion Racing, an SCCA-homologated race car team on the Canadian racing circuit, and offered them scanning services. The traditional engineering-design-production track of race cars involved a lot of hand measurement, templates, and wind tunnel tests to check the fidelity of the manufactured vehicle to the design. While it was starting to be standard for teams to employ computer modeling in the design process, there could still be a lot of uncertainty post-manufacture, let alone trackside after the high-speed mileage on a body-form began to accrue. High-precision scans provide such utility, and Roddis 3D was formed as a U.S. corporation under Landmark Surveys. With a proven solution in hand, Roddis wished to take his services to a whole new level—IndyCar.

It would take a lot of demonstration, and many doors would need to be pushed open. Roddis made inroads with the Sam Schmidt racing team and began by performing a full scan of one of the team’s Indy Lights class cars. “As far as we could determine, this was the first scan of an Indy Class car done at trackside during an event,” says Roddis. “It was here that we caught the attention of the IndyCar Technical Inspections team.” However, it was later determined that pulsed laser scanning technology was not capable of reaching the precisions required by all areas of motorsports aerodynamics.

Stepping Up Precision

The nature of racing speed has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Gone are the days of brute force and pure muscle. The average speeds at IndyCar events have risen from the fastest qualifier in 1962, from Parnelli Jones at 150.370 mph to Arie Luyendyk’s qualifying lap record at 237.498 mph in 1996 to Ryan Briscoe’s 2012 four-lap average of 226.484 mph in the new and much safer DW12 chasis.

Technological innovations in driver safety, engines, fuel-air mixture, and body forms have upped the ante even to qualify—the tires of these cars can reach near 212ºF (the boiling point of water) under peak stress. Such innovations have translated to consumer cars to some degree; a 1960s muscle car with a 500+ cubic-inch V-8 engine can be smoked by some of today’s 2-liter four-cylinder cars. The automotive industry has relied on tighter and tighter tolerances in engineering design and manufacturing to squeeze even more horsepower out of every last cc, and they expect higher aerodynamic performance out of lightweight body forms. Laboratory precisions desired by racing teams are in the range of 6 microns for CMM probe and 12 microns for scanned elements. Roddis 3D saw the need to step up to the next level of precision measurement—metrology and CMMs (see sidebar)—and soon acquired a Nikon K610 CMM.

Metrology is not new to sports racing. While analog systems in the tool kits of racing teams have advanced, such as templates and precision gauges, the computerized systems like the Nikon K610 are also finding their way into the home-base garages of many of the top teams in certain racing classes. It might surprise the casual race fan to learn that most of the IndyCar teams are not quite as large as their cousins in, say, NASCAR, where it is not uncommon to find teams and affiliates worth even hundreds of millions of dollars. 

What sets apart the vision of Roddis 3D and interested IndyCar teams is the idea not only of third-party home-base metrology but also trackside services. The Roddis team began demonstrating and testing their services at race venues through 2011 and early 2012. One memorable demo elicited a very telling reaction from a member of the IndyCar technical inspections team: “We have over a hundred tools to measure the one aero kit we have now. What will we do when we have more than one aero kit on the track at the same time?” He waved to the CMM: “That’s what we’ll need.”

It was this prospect of having to support multiple aero kits as introduced at the 2010 Edmonton Indy in Canada, and starting as early as the 2014 season at the Indy 500, that prompted IZOD IndyCar technology officials to open the door for Roddis 3D to set up shop trackside at IndyCar events in 2012, including the big one—the Indianapolis 500 in May, 2012. To many, the legacy of this annual race represents the pinnacle of motor racing, or at the very least one of the most-recognized races internationally. The Roddis 3D team brought their metrological team to the famous racetrack and were on-hand to do any spot-check validation measurements, should there be any questions by IZOD IndyCar officials as part of the IZOD IndyCar Technical Inspections team.

Buoyed by success at the 2012 Indy and a noticeable buzz about their implementation of such services at the event, Roddis 3D have even ratified the terms of their participation with the IZOD IndyCar Series to return this month to the three-weeks’ practice and running of the 2013 Indy 500.

It likely won’t be smooth sailing ahead, but prospects look solid, especially considering the proposed multiple body forms. Landmark Surveys continues to thrive, which is a good thing as they made major investments in the scanning and metrology gear needed to demonstrate the technology and begin services. Does this kind of thing seem exciting?  Roddis 3D welcomes new partnerships, sponsorships, ideas, and innovation to continue pursuit of the most advanced technologies available in this field of professional measurement.

Solid commitments and more contracts are on the near horizon, a testament to the tenacity of Murray Roddis and his team who have definitely racked up a number of impressive “firsts” in this particular field.

Put simply, metrology is the science of measurement—all measurement. This ranges from formal weights and measures to surveying, geodesy, medical imaging (e.g. tomology), nanotechnology, QA and QC for manufactured products, precision parts, even measuring the tools that do the measuring. 

Metrology is present in every industry or business that deals in physical objects. It touches engineering, science, construction, aviation, and the automotive industries. If there were an omnipresent element to the world we live in, metrology would certainly be on the list. But ask a layman what metrology is, and he might reply, “Weather?” (These are the same folks who think surveying is conducting phone polls.)
The business of metrology is a huge, multibillion-dollar industry, and with a few major players that might be familiar to surveyors, such as Carl Zeiss Metrology, Nikon Metrology, and Hexagon Metrology. It is a serious business with public safety and health as major drivers. 

There are the international and national bureau for weights and measures as well as colleges and universities specializing in metrology, often located near scientific, industrial, and manufacturing hubs like those in North Carolina, California, Geneva, and Tokyo. There are licensed weights and measures, even licensure for some types of metrology. Some people view surveying as simply one facet of metrology; in Germany and Austria there are even federal offices of surveying and metrology.

But when one thinks of metrology for manufacturing—automotive or aviation manufacturing or even the production of world-class racing cars—positional tolerances are often required and expressed in terms of microns, thousandths of an inch, or even thousandths of a degree. In the example presented in this article, the legacy metrology for race cars was done with analog instruments, templates (see figure at left), scales, calipers, even early coordinate measurement machines still reliant, in part, on mechanical processes until recent decades. Lasers and other wave-based systems, coupled with computerization and robotics, have revolutionized metrology, but the fundamentals of proper measurement still apply.

To step up to the next level of precision measurement beyond that of a simple laser scanner, for instance to check the fidelity of a car body form to that of the CAD model, a combination of several measurement technologies can be merged into one system. The Nikon K610 CMM system, like the one used in this IndyCar example, consists of a handheld unit with a short range of very precise, laser built-in and interchangeable physical probes that directly contact the surface of the components being measured.  

The position and attitude of some LEDs on the hand-held is tracked by a “camera” bar housing several charge-coupled devices (see inset figure). Positions relative to other parts of the surface can be maintained to within a few microns, and this while providing the freedom of moving around a large object like a race car and spot measuring anywhere at will. The measurements are fed back to a control station where the deviations from the CAD model are displayed.

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