Posts Tagged ‘Omega’

Nick Smith’s feature ‘Omega’s Gold Standard’ from the Sunday Telegraph, 22nd November 2009

December 1, 2009

Omega’s Gold Standard

In February 2010 Vancouver will host the Winter Olympic Games. Nick Smith flew to Canada to look at the new technology put in place by official timekeeper Omega...

It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Up high on Blackcomb Mountain in western Canada the conifers are a deep emerald green, the clear skies are cobalt blue and the snow, well it’s as pure as driven snow. This is Whistler, an exquisitely sleepy village tucked away in the crisp, cold air of the Fitzsimmons Valley. Home of the Vancouver Winter Olympics ‘sliding sports’, it’s hard to believe that in a few short weeks Whistler will be packed with some of the fastest, most adrenaline-fuelled athletes on the planet.

When it comes to the Olympic sliding sports – bobsleigh, skeleton, luge – timing is everything. A mere hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a gold or silver medal. These athletes can reach up to 90 mph and for the people in charge of timekeeping there’s simply no room for error. A billion people will watch the games on their TVs, and so the technology simply has to work, and it has to work every time.

Here at Whistler, a team of engineers and technicians has been busy integrating and testing a massively complex system of infrared emitters and receivers, sensors and transmitters, that will make sure nothing, at least with the timing, can go wrong. As the countdown progresses to the opening ceremony on 12th February, technologists from Omega are preparing for the competition, where for the 24th time, the Swiss-based watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeeper.

Omega’s president Steven Urquhart is on hand to launch a commemorative Vancouver 2010 watch. He tells me that sport, particularly Olympic sport, is part of his brand’s equity. ‘We’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th, and so we’re in it for the long run. We’ll be at the London Olympics in 2012, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and at Rio in 2016.’

As each competitor breaks any of the 42 infrared beams installed at intervals around the track, time-tagged data is transmitted to a bank of computers in a control tower. It’s complicated stuff and this nerve centre where all the split-times, rankings, sector times and so on are automatically compiled, collated and published looks like mission control at NASA. There are dozens of technical people swarming around the tower, checking software, wiring, power… One man in the middle of it all is radiating calmness.

Christophe Berthaud is head of Olympic timing at Omega. He’s got more than twenty years experience in developing new electronic timing systems, and he knows the six-year rhythms of bringing new technology to the games. His faith in technology is astounding and his job is to ‘remove the possibility of human error.’ He’s currently in Whistler to oversee some timing technology trials using real athletes.

Berthaud says that most of the technical innovations he’s been involved with have arisen from controversies and he’s adamant that although you can blame the timekeeper for virtually anything, he has a good relationship and reputation with the competitors. ‘You have to remember’ he says, ‘that Omega does not deliver the world records. The athletes do that. It’s all about the athletes and their results only become official once they are approved by the International Federation, the ultimate timekeeper.’

When Berthaud’s team arrives in Vancouver next year he’ll be spearheading the largest technical support operation the Olympics has ever seen. Although he’s not revealing the exact figures, at the Turin Winter Olympics back in 2006 he deployed 208 people – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with more than 220 tonnes of equipment. These were the games when speed skaters had transponders strapped to their ankles for the first time. These were to measure bursts of acceleration, the speed around a hairpin bend, or in the case of a skater crashing, sudden deceleration. According to Berthaud, Vancouver 2010 will ‘blow that away.’

But it wasn’t always like that. The first Winter Olympics Omega was involved in was way back in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. A lone timekeeper from Switzerland arrived with a suitcase full of stopwatches to time each event. Admittedly, these timepieces were certified chronographs, and there were twenty-seven of them, but for nervous competitors expecting instant results, they were in for a long wait. The official rankings were posted on a notice board often hours after the event.

Back at the track Christophe Berthaud can take one last question before he getting back to his time trials. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Olympic games start. ‘Nothing’ comes the reply, because he knows it’s all going to work.

 

Timepiece to remember

As the clock counts down to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Omega is releasing two commemorative watches. The Seamaster Diver 300m ‘Vancouver 2010’ is being produced in 41mm and 36.25mm versions, each in an edition limited to 2010 pieces.

The Vancouver watch has a distinctive white lacquered dial with red anodized aluminium bezel rings, recalling the maple leaf on the Canadian national flag. There is a further connection to the Games with the addition of the five Olympic rings on the counterweight of the red-tipped rhodium-plated second hand. All hands and indexes are coated with white Super-Luminova, creating a soft blue reflection in low light.

The ‘Vancouver 2010’ has its caseback embossed with the Winter Olympics Games logo, including a design based on the stone cairns erected by Canada’s First Nations peoples as a greeting to visitors in their territories. Called Ilanaak – the word means ‘friend’ in Inuktitut – it is the official symbol of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

http://www.omega.ch/

 

Advertisements

Nick Smith’s feature article on the launch of the Solar Impulse aeroplane in E&T magazine

July 27, 2009

Solar powered flight grows wings

With the unveiling of the first prototype – the HB-SIA – the Solar Impulse environmentally friendly aeroplane project has entered its final test phase. Nick Smith flew (on a fossil fuel powered plane) to Switzerland to find out more

The curtains pull back to reveal the true scale what it takes to build a long-range solar-powered aircraft. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the two main pilots of the Solar Impulse HB-SIA aircraft, embrace; thumbs up signs are given, arms held aloft. Meanwhile the curtains are still retracting to the walls of a hangar that could easily house a commercial passenger airliner.

The wings go on forever. And they need to: not only are they there to provide the as much lift as possible, they also provide the largest possible surface on which the solar panels that will power the aircraft are mounted. Every spare centimetre is covered. To save weight the fuselage has been designed to be minuscule relative to the wingspan, hardly bigger than a conventional glider. Make no mistake: Solar Impulse HB-SIA is a huge presence. And it’s not even the size of the aircraft that the team will use to fly around the world using nothing but the power of the sun.

During Piccard’s presentation, fact after startling fact emerges. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400, the Solar Impulse aeroplane weighs less than an average family car (1,600kg). Close to 12,000 wing-mounted solar panels supply renewable energy to four electric motor gondolas that propel the plane. During the day these panels will also charge the lithium-polymer batteries that will supply power for the night-phase of Solar Impulse’s flight. With the batteries weighing in at 400kg – a quarter of the plane’s total weight – getting the balance right has been one of the key challenges in developing the aircraft.

Piccard explained that the HB-SIA is the first prototype in the Solar Impulse project. In order to save weight and space, the aircraft’s cabin is unpressurised (restricting the maximum height to 8,500m), and this is where the test pilots will assess the feasibility of a complete day-night-day flight over 36 hours, propelled only by electricity generated on board by solar power technology. After fine-tuning, the aircraft is scheduled to make the first of a series of three types of test flights before the end of the year, cumulating in a maiden night flight in Switzerland in 2010.

The prototype has three main objectives. The first is to validate the results of the computer simulations and materials selection decisions. The flight will see how the aircraft performs in real life. Attaining a 63m wingspan with the necessary rigidity, lightness and flight controllability with just 1,600kg take-off weight is an aeronautical challenge that has never been achieved to date. And the flight will show how efficient the energy capture and storage system really is.

The results from the test flights will be fed into specification changes for the second aircraft – the HB-SIB – that will carry out the actual project mission of circumnavigating the world in five stages, each lasting several days, in 2012.

Bertrand Piccard is one of the great explorers of the modern era, perhaps most famous for the first ever non-stop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon. Accompanied by aeronaut Brian Jones, Piccard’s Breitling Orbiter 3 landed in Egypt after a 45,755 km flight lasting 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, prompting the pilots to co-write the best-selling book ‘Around the World in 20 Days’. But it could have all gone so badly wrong. It was the realisation that the whole project could have been scuppered by lack of fuel that drove him to attempt a further circumnavigation flight – only this time without the use of fossil fuel or its attendant polluting emissions. Solar Impulse was born.

Piccard, who is not known for his ease with measured understatement, said: “If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled only by solar energy, let no one claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers. Through this project we are proclaiming our conviction that a pioneering spirit and political vision can together change society and put an end to fossil fuel dependency.”

In summarising the achievement of the 50 staff employed by the project and the hundreds of experts and advisers who have co-ordinated the technology behind Solar Impulse, Piccard’s colleague Borschberg kept his feet on more solid ground: “A challenge like Solar Impulse,” he said, “can be met only by bringing together engineers from every background.”

At the unveiling of the aircraft the Solar Impulse company hosted a display of some of the components, materials and electronics that went into making the HB-SIA. These include carbon fibre structural pieces such as the wing ribs that give the aerodynamic profile. Despite being so light they can be easily lifted with just your little finger, perhaps the most interesting item is a cockpit instrumentation panel that is effectively a power status summary indicator. Parameters such as rpm and temperature are clearly shown for the four wing-mounted engines, but there is also a series of slider bars that show the condition of batteries or energy accumulators. The batteries are, of course, crucial to the success of the circumnavigation because this is where the surplus energy generated during the day will be stored to power the night-time flying.

Beneath the wings are four gondolas, each containing a 10HP motor, a lithium-polymer battery set and a management system controlling charge/discharge and temperature (represented in the cockpit on the instrument display). The thermal insulation has been designed to conserve the heat radiated by the batteries and to keep them functioning despite the outside air temperature of -40C at 8,500m (roughly the height of Mount Everest). Each engine is fitted with a reducer that limits the rotation of each of the 3.5m diameter, twin-bladed propeller to within the range of 200-4,000rpm (another parameter displayed inside the cockpit).

The energy is gathered by 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells plastered all over the upper surfaces of the wings and horizontal stabiliser at the rear of the plane. Each cell is 150 microns thick, and has been selected for its light-weight and flexibility. But not, it would seem, for its efficiency. At 22 per cent, the Solar Impulse technical documentation is first to admit, these are nowhere near the most efficient available, but the additional weight required to improve efficiency would have thrown out the mathematical balancing act and the less efficient option won out on other considerations. The designers say that the maximum energy density for the aircraft prototype is 220Wh/kg and only the test flights will be able to provide clues as to whether this needs to be improved upon.

There is only a relatively small part of the day when the solar panels are illuminated at such an angle that they are operating at full efficiency. At midday, each square metre of the wing surface receives the equivalent of 1,000 watts of light power. Over the course of a day this averages out at just 250W/m 2. With 200m2 of photovoltaic cells and with 12 per cent total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the aircraft’s engines achieve, even after extreme optimisation of the energy chain, an average of just 8 HP, which is about the same power as a 50cc motorcycle. Or, in aeronautical terms, roughly the same amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight. The difference is that Solar Impulse is generating its own power on board from renewable resources.

Energy management aside, one of the most critical developments has been the electronic instrumentation panel in the cockpit. This allows the pilot to monitor the condition of the flight in two key parameters – ‘bank-angle’ and ‘side-slip’. The Omega instrument panel was the brainchild of Claude Nicollier, former European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, with four space flights under his belt as well as an eight-hour EVA (spacewalk) to his name. Nicollier also sits on the Swatch Group board of directors that has provided financial assistance for the project, as well as the technical expertise to develop a performance simulation and testing system for the aeroplane’s propulsion chain. Omega already had the technical experience in the field of hybrid propulsion, but, more importantly, was in a position to align its own reputation for engineering excellence in the field of high-end horology with an environmentally friendly sustainable energy project.

“I came up with the idea for what we needed from the instrumentation and I made a drawing to show how I thought it could be implemented,” said Nicollier, demonstrating a prototype schematic at the Dübendorf airfield launch. According to Nicollier, there are two fundamental aspects to the instrument. First, there is a precise indication to the pilot of the bank-angle. This is a critical parameter on Solar Impulse, because, according to Nicollier: “Ninety nine per cent of the turns will be made with a bank-angle of less than 5 degrees. If you go beyond 10 degrees it becomes a little bit more difficult to recover. From our simulations we know that if you go beyond 15 or 20 degrees then you cannot recover. You will end up in a spiral dive and you will have to jump out.”

Second, because of Solar Impulse’s large wing-span to length of fuselage ratio, there is the tendency to pronounced sideslip, an error where the plane drifts off course relative to the direction in which it is pointing – in other words, it won’t go in the direction it’s being steered. Nicollier, who will be taking part in the later phases of the test flights, says that in the early simulator runs there was sideslip of up to 15 degrees, “which means that, because you are flying pretty slowly, as you approach a runway, you will not immediately be able to figure out which direction the aeroplane’s flying.” To indicate sideslip, Nicollier has devised an array of blue LEDs with a green light superimposed that tells the pilot at a glance whether he is good to land.

The wider environmental implications of a flagship technical challenge such as Solar Impulse is largely symbolic, giving bodies such as the European Commission a platform to display their green credentials. And there’s no doubt that Bertrand Piccard has made the most of the opportunity to display technology as a force for environmental sustainability. Piccard and Borschberg are travelling the world spreading the word. At the Beijing Olympics they presented Solar Impulse, and they have taken models to India and the UAE. Along the way they have been helped by a group of high profile ambassadors, including Prince Albert II of Monaco, Buzz Aldrin, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Paulo Coelho and Al Gore.

But it is probably the quietly spoken Nicollier who makes the message clearest. “We have not really made any quantum jumps in technology here today,”he said, “but what we have done is used technology at the limit of what is do-able. Ten years ago it was impossible. In ten years it will be much, much easier. If we can use stronger, lighter materials with more efficient energy management systems drawing on renewable resources, we are simply engineering for a better future.”

Solar Impulse HB-SIA – technical datasheet

Wingspan                  63.40m

Length                         21.85m

Height                          6.40m

Weight                         1,600kg

Motor power               4 x 10 HP electric engines

Solar cells                    11,628 (10,748 on wing, 880 on horizontal stabiliser)

Ave. flying speed        70km/h

Take-off speed            35km/h

How Solar Impulse got off the ground

1999 – Birth of an idea. Idea of Solar Impulse comes to Bertrand Piccard as his first round-the-world balloon flight nearly fails due to lack of fuel.

2001-2003 ­– Scientific support. Piccard scours world researching solar power technology and meeting solar aviation specialists. Teams up with André Borschberg. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) agrees to conduct feasibility study.

2004 – Birth of a company. Solar Impulse SA is founded on 29 June 2004. Core technology team assembled and scientific partnership agreements are signed with EPFL, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Dassault Aviation. Dassault commit to review design of Solar Impulse while providing expertise in fields of aeroelasticity and flight commands, safety and systems reliability.

2004-2007 – Project start-up. Private asset management company Semper become first official supporter, while Belgian industrial group Solvay join as first main partner, providing innovative materials, modelling and simulation. Altran join as engineering partner offering project and risk management as well as aerospace expertise. May 2006 Swiss watch manufacturer Omega join team bringing with them technical expertise of former ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier, who develops instrumentation crucial to landing the plane. Feasibility study confirms that an aeroplane with large wingspan and high aerodynamic efficiency is possible.

2007 – Growing wings. After 4 years of research, Piccard and Borschberg present the final design of the first prototype, HB-SIA. Virtual flight mission in May confirms that the battery arrays can store sufficient energy to run engines all night. Pilot training starts.

2008-2009 – Construction assembly tests. Assembly of cockpit and tail boom begin in September 2008. Central wingspar is made from three rectangular carbon fibre and honeycomb sandwich beams laid end-to-end, totalling 63 metres. Vibration tests confirm that modulus of elasticity is lower than expected; meaning that structural rigidity of Solar Impulse is stronger than expected.

2010-2012 – Flight of tomorrow. After six years of design, calculations, simulation and construction the HB-SIB will embark on night flight tests, culminating in the first circumnavigation of the globe by a solar powered aeroplane.

For further details about the Solar Impulse project visit www.solarimpulse.com

Nick Smith’s interview with Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, as featured in E&T magazine (full text)

May 23, 2009

Timing for success

Omega is the world’s largest watch manufacturer and has developed a portfolio of marketing alliances with aspirational brands such as James Bond, the Olympics and even NASA’s Lunar Landings. Nick Smith talks to Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart…

Stephen Urquhart studied Industrial Management at the University of Neuchâtel and has been a member of Omega’s Management Board since 2000. With dual nationality (British and Swiss) Urquhart is currently President of Omega, part of the Swatch Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of finished watch products. Urquhart began his career at Omega in 1968 and although he has worked for other companies since he returned to the Swiss manufacturer in 1997.

Omega has regularly been the official timekeeper for the Olympics since the 1932 summer games. The Swiss manufacturer has been the official timekeeper for every Olympiad this century including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They will be operating in the same capacity at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Canada (see Engineering & Technology ‘Olympic Time’, 23rd April 2009) and will be on hand with several new technical developments for London 2012. In the 2008 Olympics, Omega bought out an Olympic limited edition edition watch with its logo on the second hand. Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medalist Michael Phelps is an Omega Ambassador and wears the Seamaster Planet Ocean.

Today, the Swatch Group continues to invest heavily in research and development, driving the steady expansion of its leading position in materials and process technologies and in product design and manufacturing. In particular, the Swatch Group engages in significant development activities in microelectronics and micromechanics. Sports timing and measurement technologies, although not a core business, play a key role in Omega’s brand and corporate visibility.

Nick Smith: Describe the relationship that Omega has with the Olympic games…

Stephen Urquhart: Everybody knows we started of in 1932 the first ever watch brand to be commissioned by the IOC. We sent three watchmakers to Los Angeles with a little briefcase of stopwatches and they timed a few of the events. And then we went to Berlin and London. We missed a few for different reasons – so there’s a very historical basis. Second, I think we would be crazy not to pursue this association with the Olympic world because it is a unique world, a unique entity. Secondly sports is very much part of our brand’s equity. We’ve been involved in diving, sailing and golf over the years, but to have the Olympic games as your main hook for your message is a chance to go in for the long run – we’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th. It’s part of the brand’s DNA. We don’t sit down and ask ourselves ‘do we as part of our strategy sponsor or become a partner for the Olympic games’. It’s part of our future and it goes without saying. So we’ll be at the London Olympics, then Sochi (Russia Winter Olympics 2014) – that’s definite – and also the 2016 games. We don’t know where they will be yet, but Omega will be there.

NS: What are the tangible commercial benefits of this relationship?

SU: For Omega to be where it is today, somewhere along the line the Olympics must have played an important role. There’s an old saying in marketing, which is ‘half of what you spend is a waste of money, but you don’t know which half.’ And the thing about the link to the games is that it has helped us to build up the brand in terms of seriousness, reliability and quality. Obviously to be a part of the games in Beijing for us as a brand was an incredible opportunity to make the brand known in China. For the Chinese, it was such an important event for them. We saw the result there: we saw the build-up, during and after. If the brand is strong today in China then the Olympics has doubled our strength there.

NS: Can you put a graph on the wall and say these are the results?

SU: I don’t want to put a figure on it. It’s brand image and that is hard to measure. At every Olympics we launch a limited edition watch to coincide with the games and there will be a new one later this year for Vancouver. Okay, so we know that we can sell these watches because of the Olympic connection. But we’re not investing all this money and effort just to sell a few more watches. A watch is nice to have and it is part of our whole message, but it is not really our main message. That is to convey that Omega is heavily involved in the most universal sporting event in the world. But I can’t put a graph on the wall.

NS: Who is the message for? Is there a profile of the Omega client, how do you reach them and what is the method of delivery?

SU: Let’s face it, the purchase of a watch these days is not a rational decision. Today, who needs to buy a watch to tell the time? And if you do, who needs to spend thousands of pounds on one? But below the surface, to own a brand that has the notions of longevity and quality makes a difference, I think, to people’s decisions when hey come to buy one. Obviously people will buy a watch for many different reasons – it could be spontaneous, it could be for prestige reasons, or maybe even to show off – but they need to have a brand that has reliability. When our consumers spend three, four, five thousand pounds on a watch this image does play a role. If you ask the consumer, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t, but it does and our surveys say it does. When the market gets difficult, such as the economic environment we find ourselves in now, issues such as reliability and quality play an even bigger role.

NS: What part do the brand ambassadors play in establishing this reassurance?

SU: They play a role. I think maybe it’s above the line, with the precision, accuracy and reliability below the line. When you see James Bond wearing Omega, that’s when you can put a graph on the wall. We can show that during the period of promotion for Quantum of Solace the sales of the James Bond watch went like that [Urquhart points to the ceiling]. Cindy Crawford has been with the brand now for more than a decade associated with one particular product that is heavily promoted in Asia, and that line is now 60-70% of our business out there. I won’t say it’s entirely due to Cindy Crawford, but the ambassadors are there to help. They are people that the consumers can relate to, and they can relate to them much more tan to time keeping. In Beijing we had Michael Phelps along as an ambassador, and that helps. I am sure of it.

NS: Famously, Buzz Aldrin was wearing an Omega watch when he walked on the moon in 1969. The Speedmaster Professional is the first and only watch to make it to the lunar surface. What sort of effect does branding like that have on your business?

SU: Although there hasn’t been a mission to the moon for twenty or so years, to this day the Apollo 11 mission still has incredible appeal. We know that there are a lot of people out there who still follow this, so every year we celebrate the moon landing and to celebrate the 40th anniversary this year we’ve made a very special version of the moon watch. It’s sort of semi-limited and we’ve made a lot of them because there is a big following for the Speedmaster and a lot of people will want to own it. At the Basel Watch Fair in March there was a big event where we actually had Mr Aldrin with us. I am amazed to see how this story still has mass appeal to people of all ages, even people who weren’t even born when the moon landings happened.

NS: The lunar landings were technology at its most flamboyant…?

SU: I agree. And it’s technology that doesn’t really exist any more. If you go to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas and have a look at the stuff they’ve got there you can’t believe that they got to the moon and back using just this technology – it’s so rudimentary. I’ll always remember meeting the astronaut General Stafford, who didn’t actually walk on the moon, but was commander of Apollo 10, and did the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where he made the historic meeting with a Soviet Cosmonaut. He picked me up at the airport in Dallas in a small Japanese car and said: ‘Stephen, do you know that there’s more computing power in this car than there was in the whole of the whole of the Apollo space programme.

‘Olympic Time’ by Nick Smith, E&T magazine (full text)

April 15, 2009

Olympic time

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how electronic timing equipment trials are progressing

We’re looking at a fairly innocuous electronic component that could be straight out of a Radio Spares catalogue. But to Christophe Berthaud, head of Olympic timing at Swiss-based watch manufacturer Omega, it is at the heart of an infrared system he’s installed at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the site of the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver, Canada.

This high-performance, world-class sliding sports venue includes a 1,450m-long competition track, as well as the usual Olympic village buildings. Whistler is nestled in the beautiful Fitzsimmons valley on the southeast slope of Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia. Its centrepiece is the horseshoe-shaped competition track that may look benign on television, but is terrifying up close. The athletes are barely visible as they whistle past at up to 90mph (140kph).

Along the track there are 42 pairs of infrared emitters and receivers that send a time-tagged message along a wire to a central computer in the onsite control/timing tower each time the light beam is broken.

There are two systems working in parallel – a master and a backup – placed exactly 1cm apart. The instrumentation receiving and processing the data for both systems sit in a 19in rack.

The system looks remarkably straightforward, and anyone expecting to see sci-fi pioneering technology will be sorely disappointed. But the simple infrared sensors will track the progress of luge and bobsleigh competitors in real-time to the precision of a hundredth of a second. The systems used in the Olympics can resolve to the millisecond, but they don’t use that resolution in most events because the committee felt that such tiny differences were beyond the reliability of the technology. At a hundredth of a second, you can award a gold medal with confidence.

“What is important in terms of technology is that we never bring anything new to the Olympics,” Berthaud says, describing the evolutionary process of developing and installing new timing systems for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “If a technology is used for the first time in the Olympics, it is not when it is new.

“This switch here,” he adds, pointing to a tiny blue gadget in his hand, “this is the first time this particular one has been integrated into a timing system that’s going live. There is some evolution of the electronics in terms of the number of cards or the type of component, but there is no dramatic change between this system and that used at the 2006 games in Turin.”

Berthaud, an engineer by education, has spent more than 20 years working with Olympic timing technology. He knows the six-year rhythms of integrating new electronic systems into the mix. The key is to deliver something better, more accurate, faster and more appealing to the public while maintaining infallibility.

With an estimated three billion viewers expected to switch on during the course of the Games, the key issue is reliability and the system testing starts in earnest a year earlier.

In a way, the engineers at Omega have made a rod for their own backs with new innovations such as the photofinish, synchronized on-screen timing, split times and a host of other technical achievements over successive Games.

Sports showcases rely on the integrity of their measuring and timing systems as much as they rely on their ability to broadcast evermore sophisticated programming to keep the punters hooked. Today’s systems are light years away from the early days when synchronised chronographs simply recorded the time the skier started and finished his run and the results were pinned to a notice board several hours later.

“We are in the process of holding test events,” says Berthaud. “We started last October with the short track, then we had the ski-jumping and the cross country. Now we are having a cluster of tests on all the remaining events except ice hockey, which will be around September. We have a complete cluster of six to eight weeks on all venues including test events or the Paralympics – the first time it has been done.”

One of the systems that Omega is bringing to the 2010 Games is a new timer designed for the alpine skiing event. Called Chronos, it’s a new generation of timer with a new clock and software. Chronos was developed last year, tested at the end of last season and tested again at the start of this season. It’s being trialled at the World Championship at Val d’Isère where it is being used as a back-up system during the races and the main system during the training.

“We don’t take risks with the new technology. We progressively bring it to the front. The Olympic test event for alpine skiing was in March 2009 when it was used as a main system for the first time in advance of 2010. There are other systems in development and we can expect further announcements before the Games open, but depending on how the process goes we’ll release them during the year.”

As the countdown progresses toward the opening ceremony on 12 February 2010, Omega’s technologists are actively involved in preparations for the competition where, for the 24th time, the Swiss watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeepers at the Olympic Games. On 12 March, they will play the same role at the Paralympic Games.

At Omega’s first timekeeping assignment for the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a lone technician used 27stopwatches to time each event. Seventy years later in Turin, Italy, Omega deployed 208 professionals – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with 220 tonnes of equipment. Those numbers will be blown away in 2010 as the company mobilises the largest timekeeping contingent ever in winter sport.

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the reason for all these people is to minimise the possibility of human error. “What we are trying to do is get rid of human intervention,” says Berthaud. “Most of the innovations in timekeeping emerge from controversies.”

Berthaud is adamant that Omega has a good relationship with the athletes and develops the technology with athletes as design partners. “What you have to remember,” he says, “is that Omega doesn’t deliver the records – the athletes do. It is all about the athletes, and their results only become official once they are approved, so the judge of the International Federation is the ultimate timekeeper.”

The technological dream, he says, is to develop systems that can become independent of the judges. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008,Omega installed a camera with a capacity for taking 2,000 frames per second. “There were two instances where a decision was made on the basis of precision down to one pixel,” says Berthaud.

In the bobsleigh event, the competitor starts and stops the chronometer by passing through light beams. With these systems “no one can make a contestation. You can have a cell that doesn’t work, but there is no human judgement”, explains Berthaud.

I’ve spent four days touring sites including a snowboarding test at Cypress. But Berthaud is on a tight schedule. There is time for one last question. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Games. “Nothing. The Olympic Games is six years in preparation so if the day before the games start you don’t sleep then you’ve done something seriously wrong.” I check the time on my recorder. We’ve spoken for 14 minutes, 29 seconds.

Nick Smith’s Winter Olympics Omega technology preview feature is now out in the latest edition of E&T magazine…

April 15, 2009

With less than a year to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Nick Smith went to Canada to see how the electronic timing equipment trials are progressing…

To read more you’ll need to get hold of Engineering & Technology magazine (11-24 April 2009) or visit http://www.theiet.org/magazine