How innovation happens – outliers in the game of progress

Technologies designed for extreme environments such as space or Formula 1 racing are increasingly driving innovation in everyday working life

Being an outlier means standing apart from others – it could be an extreme thing, even an anomaly. Certain environments that present unique challenges to the people and machines operating within them are also called outliers. In these environments, necessity breeds innovation.

Succeeding in outlier environments requires a combination of out-of-the-box thinking, technical expertise and past experience. Designing solutions to meet the demands of such extreme settings has led to game-changing innovations and holds the key to future technological breakthroughs, which can make the world a better place and permeate every part of everyday life.

Gene Kranz, flight director of the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, was not referring to technology when he said “Failure is not an option”, but his sentiment holds true when it comes to space technology

Space is a void populated by the unforeseeable and where even the smallest issue can end in catastrophe – a hit from passing debris can see a satellite spin out of orbit, a power failure means no life support systems, an interruption in communications could cut astronauts off from life-saving data. Not to mention the high radiation, extremities of temperature at both ends of the scale and heavy vibration and shock of the initial launch process that technology in space must operate in.

An engineer can’t nip up to space to turn a satellite off and on again – space is the ultimate outlier environment. That is why devices used in space need not only high-reliability design, but also to be ultra-lightweight and ultra-low-power to achieve production, cost and energy efficiencies.

It is because of these extreme conditions that space technology innovators are responsible for many breakthroughs that are now part of our everyday lives. One example is the development of digital fly-by-wire (DFBW) technology, developed by Nasa in the 1960s when engineers began searching for alternatives to mechanical flight control. 

DFBW now enables aircraft to maintain constant speed and altitude over long distances to achieve better fuel efficiency. It is used by aerospace manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing and is deployed in both civil and military aircraft. 

Beyond that, space exploration-led technologies we see every day including artificial limbs, LEDs, de-icing systems and even the cordless vacuum cleaner. Tata Communications is even working with a team in the Google X Prize to communicate a selfie of Team Indus’ robot from the moon using its IP network.

Driving competitive advantage

While the extremes of space have brought innovation across the board, the automotive industry also has an outlier environment to thank for its rapid pace of innovation – Formula 1. A fraction of a second makes the difference between success and failure in F1. 

To win, a team needs a car that can reach top speeds of over 233mph; a driver with a reaction time of less than 0.4 seconds; and a crew that makes race-winning calls in the heat of the moment based on accurate and up-to-the-second information.

So engineers and manufacturers have a challenging brief – build a car that, as well as 200mph-plus top speeds, has the acceleration and braking capacity to go from nought to 100mph and back to nought in under five seconds, and ensure it works week in, week out in any conditions.

To meet that brief, Mercedes shares information on aerodynamics and computational fluid dynamics with Nasa and defence group BAE Systems, while Lotus has a similar co-operative relationship with Boeing. 

The notoriously secretive F1 teams have pioneered the use of new carbon-fibre composites, engineered breakthroughs in suspension systems and even lead in areas of human performance science. The result has been the emergence of technologies such as active suspension, traction control, gearbox automation, improved fuel consumption and aerodynamics in everyday street cars. 

Beyond automotive, the same hi-tech carbon-fibre composite – a resilient, lightweight material originally designed for F1 cockpits – is used in a ground-breaking incubator that keeps babies safe when they are transported between hospitals: the Baby Pod II infant transporter.

A more recent F1 development is the impact of data and superfast connectivity via fibre on racing teams' fortunes. At the height of a 200mph race, engineers analyse information recorded by up to 200 sensors on the car in real time. They can use this to make split-second decisions on factors ranging from tyre pressure and fuel consumption to factors affecting previous lap times.

As with in-car hardware and engineering, the data collection and analysis technologies used in F1 have found applications in other industries. For example, McLaren's advanced telemetry system for remote condition monitoring of an F1 car – which uses sensors to monitor data feeds and enable real-time strategy and decision-making – has been applied to the monitoring of medical patients. 

Likewise, Cosworth, a supplier of F1 engines and electronics, works alongside the UK Ministry of Defence to provide a military accident data recorder and blast event and vehicle integrity system, which enables military personnel to gather information about accidents and events on the battlefield.

An initiative that is taking advantage of Formula 1’s outlier credentials is Tata Communications’ Formula 1 Connectivity Innovation Prize – an annual competition that challenges teams of innovators to propose solutions to current technological challenges in the sport.

For example, the first challenge in this year’s prize, proposed by Mercedes AMG Petronas, is to design a data display for the team’s engineers during track sessions to make their in-race decision-making quicker and more accurate. Participants must take into consideration the fact that the pit wall during trackside operations is one of the most extreme field-based engineering environments to work in, with temperatures often exceeding 40°C. 

So, a winning solution needs an intuitive interface as well as the ability to process and arrange huge – and constantly increasing – volumes of data. The brief is designed to inspire would-be innovators to overcome technological, climatic, cognition and design-based challenges with a realistic solution that adds true value.

The sporting outlier

The relationship between technology and sport extends beyond F1 and technologies from other outlier environments are also starting to change the world of sport. Team sports are notoriously difficult to officiate because of the pace at which they are played and the fact that rules books tend to be littered by grey areas. 

Hawk-Eye technology, a system that visually tracks the trajectory of a ball and displays a record of its statistically most likely path as a moving image, is now used to help cricket, tennis and football umpires and referees make more accurate decisions, reducing injustice caused by human error. 

All Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by high-speed video cameras. The technology has its origins in a subsidiary of Siemens, Roke Manor Research, which specialises in image processing technology for use in applications such as visual positioning systems for space missions and location systems for the military – two classic outlier environments.

Read more about Formula 1 innovation

Hawk-Eye first appeared as a commentary feature on Channel 4’s coverage of live cricket. It was installed to assist umpires’ decision-making in 2008/09, by which point it was already being used in tennis – debuting at the 2005 US Open. 

Having established itself as a technology that added value to cricket and tennis, its deployment in football was first showcased at last year's FIFA World Cup, triggering a vibration on a wristband worn by the referee if the ball crosses the goal-line.

FIFA has announced that it may not just be referees who are equipped with wearable technology soon – the international football governing body has declared itself open to the idea of players using wearables, too. These would provide insightful information such as that obtained by monitoring athletes while they are performing, which has so far only been possible in the gym or on the training ground. 

Although wearables are already having an impact on the training ground, if performance and health data can be gathered on professional athletes and sportspeople in a competitive environment, sports scientists can develop new ways to improve performance and make sports safer.

This blossoming relationship between technology and sport is a pathway to further technological innovations that could affect other industries. Sports generally, and the competition they create, create the attributes of an outlier environment. Teams and individuals push the boundaries of how they train, prepare and execute to get that extra 1% of performance. The stakes are high and wrong decisions caused by human error could result in costly losses.

As a result, professional sport is becoming a hotbed of biological, medical, nutritional, physiological, psychological and even technological research and testing. Research on methods for athletes to maintain maximum performance output has led to numerous innovative products ranging from energy gels to advanced systems that test and improve reaction times.

Bringing outliers in

The role of outliers in incubating extreme innovation has gone full cycle – from using technologies developed for space in sport, to sharing research and development from sports testing with technology innovators. In fact, any environment where the stakes are exceptionally high for whatever reason is a foundation for innovation.

Enterprises such as partnerships between companies operating in different industries affected by unique outlier environments; the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize; and bringing wearable technology into professional sports environments are all ways of stimulating a culture of innovation. 

The cross-pollination of ideas, expertise and technology that evolves from these initiatives will certainly register an impact on the technology we use every day at home, on the move and in the workplace.

Mehul Kapadia is managing director of F1 business at Tata Communications

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