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July 31, 2006

The case for vPos

Filed under: Topics by Mike — ritz @ 8:53 pm

by MikeMike

World Gliding Championships have been held for many decades, but is has traditionally been quite difficult to follow these contests. News of the day-to-day race results often came from a telephone call from one of the crewpeople or the teamcaptain to the national gliding secretary, who then would type out the information and stick it on a message board in the bar of the national gliding centre, where it could be read by interested parties. As telephone became more sophisticated, sometimes a tape would be prepared each day of the results and members or interested parties could phone a certain telephone number and listen to the tape to get some idea of what was going on. It was slow and often incomplete but for those people who were interested in how a world championship progressed it really was the only way you could get some information.

The emergence of television has made an enormous difference because people could now watch events live or in compressed form by watching the sports programmes, but until today television companies havn’t been interested in covering competitive soaring. This is because nobody has, so far, been able to make soaring attractive to the general public watching their television sets at home.

Internet is now rapidly providing ways for us near mortals to follow an important soaring event. The internet menu provided by contemporary competition organisers is expected to include shout-boxes, newstickers, webcams on site, near realtime scoring, on site bloggers (latest news) and photogalleries / movies. In the competition website there is sometimes an area for country sub-sites giving similarly structured info as the main site, just focused on the national team. If you don’t have all the above on your competition’s website your contest management can be deemed to be deficient to say the least.

And now there is something new ….. vPos. For those who haven’t seen it, this is a system that can display (real time), on an electronic map, the position and height of the gliders whilst they are on task. The vPos system has some other features that are amusing, interesting and fancy, but the astonishing advantage is now that you and I can actually follow a contest pretty well live. It is absolutely clear that a major contest, or a selfrespecting smaller one, without vPos or a similar system is now unthinkable.

All gliders should be fitted with the vPos system just like all gliders nowadays have (often two) loggers. The two systems (IGC-logger and vPos) are probably reasonably easy to combine into one box and if FLARM could be included in the same box, this would make for one hell of a data, tracking and collision avoidance package. There are various safety reasons why we would want such a system anyway (for instance collision avoidance, locating a lost glider) and at the same time it provides the platform to make it much more fascinating for the audience. Let me explain…

When all competing gliders are fitted with vPos, anybody with a computer and an internet connection can now follow the event live. I assume that in the near future some zoom, time, filter and other controls will be selectable in the website of the contest, so the viewer can select which glider he wants to be the center of attention, how the data is presented etc. etc. Also, when a glider passes the finish line or (better) enters the finish circle, the IGC file could maybe be downloaded instantly to the contest-server. The relative postion and a preliminary day-result and preliminary cumulative standing builds itself immediately as gliders finish their task or land out. As the glider rolls to a stop after a task, he is met by a crewperson with a laptop or handheld computer and the pilot knows pretty well how the day went before he even gets out of the cockpit. Similarly he might get the message that things didn’t go that well when the crew tell him that the laptop fell and broke, they forgot to put it on, the battery is empty or that there is no connection at the time. Pilots can be volatile at times and showing them the (bad) results too soon might not be such a good idea. Enough of this, there is another angle to this vPos business that I find absolutely facinating, so listen to this ….

At the moment vPos is delayed by 15 minutes, so when you watch the screen, what you see is the position as it was 15 minutes ago. This is a pity because, obviously, what you see is not quite live. The 15 minute delay is motivated because of the fear that a pilot might have an advantage from someone monitoring the vPos display and passing on information to another pilot. This itself may be correct but the data is available to anyone at the same time, so??

I don’t think there is much, if any, ground for this 15 minute delay in data release. I think we are doing ourselves, viewers and pilots alike, a big dis-service by having this delay. Why…
Firstly we should not always try to put “equalizers” and “handicaps” in the system to make things “fair”. Some people have better eyes than others and thus some pilots will see other gliders (long) before others will. Are we now going to give all competitors in a class corrective glasses so their sight is degraded to the level of the one unfortunate enough to have the worst eye-sight. Would that be fair? I guess it would be fair, but I don’t think anyone will want to seriously think of actually handing out the corrective glasses for the flight!! I don’t even want to start thinking of a correction for one pilot being smarter than another. So I guess what I want to say is, what’s available is available and let everyone do with it what he likes.

One of the drawbacks of gliding is that it is a pretty egoistic sport. The crew can clean gliders, they can pamper the pilot, they can rig and de-rig the glider when the weather turns foul or when it clears up again. They can make food for him, bring him drinks etc. etc. Some crews are great (!!!), in fact some are so dedicated that Cleopatra (who had many servants) would have been extremely envious of the pilots of today. But the crews are not “in the cockpit” and they are no big help once the pilot is on the way. In the past, when POST tasks were being used in major contests, there was some opportunity for a pilot with a smart and fast thinking crew, to gain some advantage because working out the various turnpoint scenario’s versus time left on task was not something done easily in the cockpit. So people on the ground could help the pilot optimising his performance because they could work out the various remaining flight times based on an assessment from the pilot whether the sky “looked good” or “a bit iffy” from where he was towards a specified turnpoint. The method was somewhat crude but it turned out that a switched on ground crew could be helpful in providing the pilot with a sequence of turnpoints to optimise time and distance.

With vPos we have something entirely different available. We can now make gliding a team sport. Just imagine that on a certain day there is an AST of 200-600km. There are a number of competitors in our class we consider of importance. By e-mail or sms the pilot’s crew contacts a few of his gliding friends. Each is allocated a few gliders to monitor (plus their own pilot of course). The central “controller” (the pilots crew or the tactician of the pilot, who communicates with him over the radio) now sets up a party line on his computer through a messaging system or VoIp connection. Let the game begin…. I don’t know how this will develop, but I can see that the “analysts” sitting behind their computers and monitoring the vPos data will come up with usefull bits of analyses and tactical inputs. The “controller” will get the feed from his (remote) operatives and he most likely will be able to work out some good ideas, data and tips for the pilot to use if he thinks they are sound. So now there are already several people (is several extra brains) “flying” with the pilot in his cockpit. And these people could be virtually anywhere on the world..!!! How fascinating….. This is however only going to work when the time delay is taken out of the vPos data stream. If that doesn’t happen the potential created by vPos is negated to a large extent straight away and looking at it will be done because it is a curiosity rather than an exciting live media at work. Far fetched ???? Maybe, but just think of the possibilities with the time delay disabled…

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