How Envision Virgin Racing team uses data science to hone performance

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Effective use of data science can help business leaders improve their decision-making processes. In the high-speed world of motorsport, those decisions have race-changing implications.

That’s certainly the case for Sylvain Filippi, managing director and CTO of the Envision Virgin Racing team, one of the leading teams in Formula E — a single-seater motorsport championship that only uses electric cars. His team produces huge amounts of data, but needs to use this information effectively to produce a competitive advantage.

To give his team every chance of success, Filippi’s team started working with global professional services firm Genpact two years ago. Envision Virgin Racing uses Genpact’s data science skills to hone performance on race day. Filippi explained to VentureBeat how the relationship works and the advantages it provides to his team.

VentureBeat: Why is data crucial on race days?

Sylvain Filippi: That’s everything to do with the race format in Formula E. Formula 1 races are spread out over three or four days; they do free practice on Thursday and Friday, qualifying on Saturday, and a race on Sunday. They have loads of time to look at the data and analyze it. In Formula E, we do all of these elements in one day: at 7:30 a.m., we start free practice one, and then free practice two at around 10 a.m., qualifying at midday, and at 4 p.m., we race. You basically have an hour or less in-between sessions to download all the data, to look at it, gather all the insights, and then make decisions on what you’re changing and what you’re modifying for the next session. So it’s a huge engineering challenge, purely because of the race format.

VentureBeat: What does this data challenge mean in terms of your business?

Filippi: You have to be super good at IT – we have a top IT infrastructure team, given the size of our business. You also need talented software engineers and data engineers because you need to be really efficient at downloading data, analyzing it, and structuring it. And then, the engineers need to know what they are looking for in terms of getting the right insights and making the right changes. Those changes are twofold – making any changes on the car like in any other racing formula, but also all the data that is related to the energy side of Formula E. There’s a gigantic amount of work to cover in less than an hour between sessions.

VentureBeat: How are you working with Genpact to help you deal with this data challenge?

Filippi: Genpact is helping us by using its expert capabilities in data science. They’re starting to play with our data, which according to them is pretty good because there’s a lot of detail and it’s really well structured, which is not the case in many companies. I’m pretty certain that they’re going to be able to find trends and correlations and links between all sorts of random stuff — from weather to temperature — and onto the tires. They’ll be able to crunch our entire set of data and find some trends that we haven’t seen and we don’t know about because it’s physically impossible for the human brain.

VentureBeat: Why is the application of data science so important to your team?

Filippi: This work is exciting because it’s never been done in motorsport before really. It’s very, very early days in terms of how to gain performance through AI and machine learning – and that’s a fun exercise. We started working with Genpact about two years ago. And we started from scratch. There was no software or a platform; nothing like that existed. So, they located some super clever data scientists and started looking at our data, and they’re starting to come up with insights and models.

VentureBeat: Where has the relationship with Genpact produced dividends?

Filippi: You have the pure performance side of the car, which is changing race by race, which is about asking “how do you make the car go faster?” There’s also the whole strategy side. So we don’t have pit stops at the moment in Formula E, even though they could come back in the future. But, we do have Attack Mode, which allows teams to temporarily raise the power output of a Formula E car. Using that boost at the right time can have race-changing implications, so when do you use Attack Mode? There’s many decisions that need to be taken in a 45-minute race around Attack Mode and what we do in any sporting situation. Data is crucial because we’re a relatively limited team by motorsport regulations, and you’re only allowed 17 operational people at the track – and that’s not many people compared to Formula 1.

VentureBeat: Where else are you using data science on race day?

Filippi: In Formula E races, instead of a number of labs, like in Formula One, there are timed races – so 45 minutes plus one lap. Managing that sounds easy, but it’s a gigantic challenge because when you start the race, you have a certain amount of energy in your battery. If you don’t know the distance you’re going to be covering, then you don’t know how much energy you can use per lap. If you misjudge it, you’ll run out of energy at the end of the race. Or on the other side, you’ll finish with too much energy, which means you could have gone faster. Genpact have worked with us to develop a piece of software that helps us evaluate that energy relationship dynamically throughout the race so we can accurately estimate the exact distance that we’re going to cover. And that’s hugely complex because, by definition, what happens in racing is an ever-changing scenario. No one can predict a race –  there’s always the impact of a safety car or rain or something else.

VentureBeat: How are you using analytics to engage the fan base?

Filippi: Fans these days, especially the younger generation, are really data-hungry – they want to understand how the sport works and why decisions are made. The strategy aspect of it, and why you make a decision, is super important. So we’re working with Genpact on how we can give even more to the fans because it makes the sport more engaging and it makes them excited. But that’s a work in progress. It’s really important – we’re a new sport. This is our seventh season, and we’ve grown at a rapid pace. Now, we are a major motorsport platform and we need to keep going, but also we need to reaffirm who we are and our values.

VentureBeat: What is your best-practice tip for making the most of data?

Filippi: Genpact has taught us that it’s really important to be very organized – structured data is everything. If you have a lot of data, but it’s completely unstructured – and you can’t access it because it’s in documents where you can’t extract the data – then it’s pretty useless. So you’ve got to really think about the outcome and the insights you want to get to, and then work backwards to what your data should look like. Never underestimate the value of your data, which in most companies around the world is much more valuable than people would think.


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Tech News

AA and Virgin Atlantic want this eVTOL aircraft for “flying taxi” city hops

American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are looking to much shorter flights to expand their future services, each inking deals that could see them piloting electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft in the US and UK, respectively. The airlines have partnered with startup Vertical Aerospace, which is working on the eVTOL VA-X4 aircraft that can leap vertically into the air and fly for over 100 miles on a single charge.

Inside, there’s seating for four passengers plus a pilot. The VA-X4 has four tilting rotors at the front, which are meant to lift it up off the ground, and more, stowable rotors at the rear for horizontal flight.

It’ll be capable, Vertical Aerospace says, of flying at speeds over 200 mph, with zero emissions and in near silence. While its range is obviously a lot less than most of AA or Virgin Atlantic’s current fleets, the advantage is the flexibility to operate services in locations where traditional aircraft simply aren’t catered for. That makes it potentially ideal for the short-haul city-hopper service the airline has in mind.

For Virgin Atlantic, the goal is to build a network of eVTOL flights between UK cities and airport hubs. That’ll start with London Heathrow, Manchester, and London Gatwick, Virgin Atlantic says. A flight from Cambridge to London Heathrow, for example, could be completed in 22 minutes on the VA-X4, compared to a typical 90 minute drive for the 56 mile journey.

“With 37 towns and cities with populations over 100,000 within 100 miles of London Heathrow Airport,” the airline points out, “the VA-X4 offers huge potential to support zero emissions short haul transfers for 7.7 million customers outside of London, for flights to and from the UK’s main hub airport.”

American Airlines, meanwhile, plan to work on a similar strategy in the US. It and Vertical will collaborate on certification, passenger operations, and infrastructure development.

If there’s a problem with the whole plan, it’s that right now there isn’t actually a VA-X4. That is to say, Vertical Aerospace is currently building a full-scale prototype, but the first test flight for that isn’t expected to take place until later this year.

Assuming that goes to plan – and, as with any new aircraft, there’s no guarantee that the current roadmap won’t change – then commercial operations of the VA-X4 are planned for 2024. It’ll need to clinch US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) certification before that can happen, of course.

If all the pieces fall into place, Virgin Atlantic has an option to purchase 50 to 150 VA-X4 aircraft. The joint venture will be Virgin Atlantic branded, and focus on “price competitive regional connectivity” for the first and last 100 miles of their customers’ journey. For example, you might get off a transatlantic flight from New York City, and then go straight from a full-sized Virgin Atlantic jet to an eVTOL aircraft to hop that last jump to be closer to home.

American Airlines, meanwhile, is investing in Vertical – along with Avolon, Honeywell, Rolls-Royce, Microsoft’s M12, 40 North, and Rocket Internet SE – and has agreed to pre-order up to 250 aircraft with an option to add a further 100 to the order. That’ll depend on meeting various conditions and milestones. Avolon has agreed to pre-order up to 310 VA-X4, with the option for a further 190.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen eVTOL billed as the perfect way for (wealthy) passengers to avoid road congestion. It’s also a tricky segment to compete in, with multiple startups attempting such aircraft – and some also shutting down operations, too, having discovered how tricky a concept that might be.

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Tech News

Virgin Hyperloop Passenger Experience vision is now more realistic

Elon Musk and Richard Branson aren’t just competing for the stars, they’re also racing to address one of the biggest human-made problems down here on Earth. But while Musk’s Boring Company is digging underground, Virgin Hyperloop is envisioning something that looks almost like a traditional railway, except in a system of vacuum tubes. In fact, the company’s new video detailing its envisioned passenger experience now has closer ties to reality though it still remains ambitious in terms of speed, scope, and, of course, price.

The idea for the Hyperloop is itself already ambitious, ferrying capsule-like pods traveling at supersonic speeds. The ultimate goal is to help reduce traffic congestion caused by the number of vehicles on highways. Given the features and amenities that will be offered by the Virgin Hyperloop, however, some might have doubts whether it will be accessible to most commuters at all.

The initial concept revealed by Virgin Hyperloop in 2016 definitely seemed more like science fiction than something that could be achieved in less than a decade. That involved an autonomous pod for a small batch of people that would drive itself to a dock that would be joined with three others into a capsule before shooting through the Hyperloop itself. Given the current state of autonomous driving technology, that is clearly still not ready.

The latest Passenger Experience video, in contrast, seems to be more grounded in today’s technologies and design while still sticking to the core supersonic speed feature that the service will offer. Passengers walk to buildings resembling train stations and board on capsules that are more like train cabins, both inside and out. Unlike trains, though, each capsule still travels independently, though they join at certain points into a single line while keeping safe distances between each capsule.

This experience might be more achievable than the 2016 vision, though it still leaves a lot of elements undefined, like the technology that will be used to ensure the safety and accuracy of such high-speed transit systems. In its press release, Virgin Hyperloop CEO Jay Walder emphasize the company’s goal to make this system accessible to people, comparing it more closely to driving than to flying. Of course, that still remains to be seen and the company’s tune could change by the time the Virgin Hyperloop goes online in 2030.

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