Bloodhound SSC team interview

Supplementary content information

Interview with Richard Noble and Ben Evans from the Bloodhound SSC team

Listen to Bloodhound SSC project director and current world land speed record holder, Richard Noble, talk about the challenge ahead.

Dr Ben Evans explains the world-class aerodynamics research needed to build a 1,000mph car.

Hear the cockpit recordings of driver Andy Green at the wheel of the Thrust SSC supersonic car. The use of the cockpit recording was provided courtesy of Jeremy Davey from the Thrust SSC website

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Richard Nobel [RN]

We’ve now got to a point where we’ve got the basic design right, we’ve got a car that weighs about 7 tons, it’s powered by a jet engine and a rocket motor, it’s 13.5m long, it’s got a 125,000 horse power, it’s the most powerful car that has every been built. The fascinating thing about it is it looks completely different to anything we’ve ever seen before.

Ben Evans [BE]

One of the goals of this project is to use this car, this hopefully iconic vehicle, to teach young people about science, to get young people excited about science and to encourage them to stick with science, technology and mathematics so that they can be the future engineers who are solving the problems that we have in this world.

[Rocket sounds and radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

[Interviewer]

In 1997, Andy Green set a new world land speed record reaching the super sonic speed of 763.035mph. The thrust SSC project was led by Richard Nobel who himself had set a world land speed record in 1983. Now, led again by Richard and piloted by Andy with aerodynamics research funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, they want to do it all again, but this time not only are they aiming to reach a speed of 1,000 mph, they also want to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists. Richard explains the background to the project.

[RN]

This is quite an extraordinary story. It was the idea of Lord Drayson. Lord Drayson was the Minister for defence equipment and support for the Ministry of Defence and he had a real problem. His problem was simply that there was a shortage of engineers and he realised that back in the last century, when Britain did these fantastic aerospace projects like, for instance, the Vulcan Bomber, the TSR2, the lightening fighter and of course Concorde, there were simply no shortage of engineers. Why? Well because basically all of the kids at schools were very fired up by these tremendous programmes. Then, of course, Britain stopped doing these projects and so consequently the supply of engineers began to fall off.

So much so that at the moment 24,500 students go through the system, but it’s been steady at that for the last ten years whereas the university capacities have increased by about 40 per cent.

So it’s a real problem because when we look forward to what’s going to happen in this country, everything we know, everything we touch, everything we use has got to change. Our houses have got to change, our transport has got to change, our aircraft, our railways, our cars. We’ve got to move into a low carbon world and the reality is we haven’t got any engineers, so how on earth are we going to do it?

So we set about doing the ultimate land speed record project. We have held the land speed record twice before with Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC, but these were cars which we literally had to scrape around to get the old technology which is all we had access to. So for instance, the thrust SSC engines were 1960s’ technologies now 30 years old. With this new project, we are able to use the most advanced technology we possibly can. We have got, for instance, the Eurofighter range and the EJ200, which is the most advanced jet engine anywhere, and we’ve also got a huge rocket motor. It’s an incredible programme and I think Lord Drayson is right. I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to really excite people and, as a result of this, we are going to be able to run our programmes through every single school in the country and the kids are going to be able to come down here and actually see the car being built and follow it all through.

[Interviewer]

How does it actually link into the school side of things?

[RN]

It fits in with the school curriculum in point of fact really very well and, of course, there is a focus on STEM which is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics so there’s a bit of everything in there. In point of fact, once you get into it you realise there is such a wide range of school subjects that impinge on this project you realise that actually it is incredibly valuable. So the teachers will be able to use it for a wide range of activities.

[Interviewer]

Ben Evans is a Research Assistant at the School of Engineering at Swansea University. With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Ben is doing the computational modelling of the aerodynamics research for the project.

[BE]

Obviously with a car that’s travelling at faster than the speed of sound, and hopefully 1,000 mph, one of the massive things that we need to understand about how this car behaves is how does the airflow around it and essentially the study of aerodynamics is the study of air flow and what air does to objects that it is flowing around. Now traditionally this kind of research might have been done in wind tunnels. There are a number of problems with running this kind of application in a wind tunnel. One of them is that we are running across the ground and you can’t roll on the ground in a wind tunnel at 1,000 mph. But today with the advent of modern computing we can do the same thing that you would traditionally do in a wind tunnel, but on a big supercomputer.

So we come into the project by modelling the aerodynamics flows around Bloodhound and when I’m talking about aerodynamic flows, it’s everything from the general total flow around the car to things like the flow through the duct leading into the jet engine and the flow within the hub of the wheels. Every area of the car that has an aerodynamic flow, an airflow associated with it, we have been modelling at Swansea using our computational modelling capabilities. It’s a 128 processer system so essentially you have 128 pc type processors all talking to each other so its almost like having 128 desktop pc’s sat together, connected up cleverly and they are all talking to each other in very simple terms. That’s the super computing system that we have at the School of Engineering at Swansea University.

One of the big things that we are trying to understand on this project is what happens to these strong shockwaves that are generated when you travel faster than the speed of sound. Now obviously there are lots of aircraft that we can think of, Concorde being a perfect example of aircraft that travel faster than the speed of sound and they generate shockwaves. A shockwave occurs when an object travels through the air faster than the speed at which it can tell the air ahead of it that it’s coming, so you or I if we were walking down the street or driving down the motorway in our car, we’re sending pressure waves forwards ahead of us that are telling the air ahead of you that you are coming so that it can move out of the way. Of course once you start moving at the same speed that you are sending out those pressure waves it gets impossible for you to tell the air ahead of you that you are coming, so what happens is you generate a shockwave. We see those on aircraft travelling high up in the atmosphere and we even hear them if an aircraft travels overhead faster than the speed of sound - you hear that shock wave in terms of a sonic boom. Now what is a much more tricky concept to deal with is what happens when those shockwaves are generated much, much closer to the ground, in the case of Bloodhound, just a metre or so off the ground, what happens when those shockwaves interact with the surface. You will be running on a dessert so we are trying to understand where those shockwaves are going to impinge on the dessert surface and what are they going to do, are they going to reflect and bounce back up against the car, where exactly on the car are we going to be generating shockwaves so understanding that is absolutely critical.

[Interviewer]

How much danger is involved?

[BE]

Hopefully the whole idea and the whole ethos of the project is that we minimise the danger. Obviously if you put a human being in a car and you project him at 1,000mph across the surface of the dessert there’s danger that you can’t avoid, but the whole purpose of the year that we have just spent doing research on this is trying to understand exactly how a car like this will behave at these kinds of speeds. From my point of view, that’s aerodynamically, there are other people on the team who are responsible for trying to understand structurally how the car will behave, electronically systems wise how the car is going to behave, the dangers, the kind of things that you might think of if it hits a bump and the angle at which the car is approaching the air changes, what are the changing forces acting on the car, is it going to take off, is it going to stay on the ground. And trying to understand all of that and make sure we have a car that’s stable, it’s not only stable, but it’s driveable and steerable is very important. And we believe now that we are approaching the point where we can say yes we think we have a concept here that we can achieve this safely, but of course when it comes to doing the runs everything will be done incrementally in terms of stepping up the speed. It won’t be just a case of we have run a computer model that tells us this car is going to be fine at 1,000 mph so let’s just shoot down the runway at 1,000mph. The whole ethos of the project is that we do this stage by stage. We analyse the data that’s coming back, we compare it with the data with the computer models that has been given to us and if there are any discrepancies between the computer models that we’ve been running in Swansea and the data that we get on the runs in the dessert, then we have to stop and say hang on a minute what’s going on here, so absolutely safety is completely critical.

[Interviewer]

So where did the name Bloodhound come from? It isn’t the most obvious title for the fastest car in the world. Ben explains more.

[BE]

Ron Ayres who had taken the role of head of performance for the car many years ago, in fact he worked on a missile that was called Bloodhound and the project initially took on the term Bloodhound just as a code name in the early days of the project, but as the project research year has rolled by we’ve just got to know the car as being called Bloodhound and it seems to have fit and we’ve stuck with it.

[Interviewer]

Some cynics will no doubt be critical of the carbon footprint that will be left by the car. However Ben stresses that the research going into the design will lead to many more positives than negatives in terms of potential benefits for society.

[BE]

Any activity like this does have this carbon footprint that we are talking about these days. You can’t deny that. If you compare what were doing, for example, with Formula 1, it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of our carbon footprint. And specifically what we are trying to achieve through the Bloodhound project is to motivate young people particularly to stick with science, engineering and mathematics because we live in a world where the problems in this world are being screamed about and shouted about and we are being told that we are living in this carbon economy and the world is warming up and it’s all our fault. Lots of these problems in part are going to be solved by engineers and scientists and mathematicians and we do have a problem, I think, that some of these subjects in school at the moment are not attractive options for young people.

So one of the goals of this project is to use this car, this hopefully iconic vehicle, to teach young people about science, to get young people excited about science and to encourage them to stick with science, technology and mathematics so that they can be the people of the future who become the engineers who are solving the problems that we have in this world.

[Interviewer]

You talk about the educational aspects, the technological aspects, what sort of research could come about as a result of this project that could make a difference to our lives in the future in other areas?

[BE]

That’s a great question. Computational modelling, which is in the broader sense what we are doing at Swansea University, is essentially taking the governing equations of any physical problem, which in many cases is a set of partial differential equations. So in the case of aerodynamics the partially differential equations that we are solving are called the navio stokes equations so these equations describe a viscose fluid flow so that’s a viscose aerodynamic problem, but any set of partial differential equations that describe a physical system, so it could be structural system it could be an electro magnetic system, can be solved using essentially the same techniques that we’re using and developing specifically for Bloodhound.

For example, I sit in an office at Swansea University and the researcher on the desk next to me is studying haemodynamics, so blood flow through the arterial system, and one of her research projects at the moment is to understand valves within the heart and how they react to different haemodynamic blood flow scenarios. So the spin-offs in terms of the kind of things we are developing in the world of computational modelling are massive. Any system that you can describe essentially by partial differential equations can be solved using the methods of computational modelling.

We’re talking about something, a car that looks a little bit like an aircraft travelling at the kinds of speeds that aircraft travel at. So the kind of technology that we are developing specifically for Bloodhound, you know, trying to capture shock waves accurately, have direct implications to the aerospace industry - obviously that’s the kind of place you would expect to find objects travelling at these sort of speeds. But in the same research group that I’m working in, we are developing codes to solve electromagnetic problems, so lightning strike of aircraft, things like that. There’s a wide range of applications here.

[Sound of rocket]

[BE]

I know at the moment Airbus they have, I believe, got a project called the 2020 project where by the year 2020 they are trying to develop an aircraft that’s fifty per cent more fuel efficient and fifty per cent quieter. Now that can only be achieved really by optimising designs and that will be done partly through computational modelling. So these technologies that we are developing are going to continue to be used in aerospace and aircraft designs as optimisation tools as we try to understand what is the perfect shape for a wing to minimise drag, to optimise your lift drag ratio, to minimise noise, where should the jet engines on an aircraft be positioned to minimise noise disturbance over the ground, these are the kind of things that really need to get down to the nitty gritty optimisation level we need to be running computer models on.

[Interviewer]

So the engineering adventure has begun and both Richard Nobel and Ben Evans say that the EPSRC support for the project has made a significant difference.

[RN]

What has happened here is that the EPSRC has come on board right at the start and has funded the Swansea aerodynamics team for over three years and so that enabled us to get a really hot start.

[BE]

Certainly the computation modelling part of the project wouldn’t have been possible without EPSRC funding. The research group that I’m apart of working on this project is funded by EPSRC and it’s a simple case of we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the funding.

[Interviewer]

So what will it be like to drive the fastest car in the world? Richard Nobel has a pretty good idea from his own experience behind the wheel of Thrust 2 in 1983 when he set a world land speed record of 633.468 mph.

[RN]

You’re not there for any kind of excitement and basically if you’ve got a driver that gets all excited then you’ve got the wrong person. It’s a very cold blooded process.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

[RN]

You’re getting off the line at full power so you’ve got 35,000 horse power, between 0-300mph, the car is all over the place so you’ve got to work really hard to keep the front wheels in front of the back wheels and keep it all going. You’re driving down a lane which is only 50ft wide and then you get to what we call the threshold speed, which is about 300mph, when it seems to stabilise, and then 300-550 which is boring because it’s more of the same really. But once you get above 550 it gets very interesting because the air flow starts to go supersonic over bits of it and you start seeing the shock waves build up and the extraordinary thing too I found was that your mental processes speed right up and everything happens in very very slow motion so you can see every single detail on the ground come up and go underneath the car at 650 mph. And then you go through the motive mile and then you’ve got to think about stopping and this is where the fun starts. You’ve got to allow the engine three seconds to cool at 98 per cent and that seems like an eternity, and then and only then, can you fire the break power chute and when the break power chute comes out you get between five and six g deceleration so you are losing speed at about 130mph per second, and the human body isn’t really capable of taking this. So you get an extraordinary effect called a somatogravic illusion and it upsets the inner ear and you think you are driving vertically downwards into the centre of the earth.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]

[RN]

And then you’re down to literally 400mph or so and then you’ve got to bring the wheel brakes in at 200 - that’s the process.

[Interviewer]

So Andy Green is again the man this time - what sort of character is he?

[RN]

Andy’s very very cool. He’s an absolute first class mathematician. He’s got 2,000 hours of fast jet experience. He’s extremely good at this. He’s the best in the world - it’s really as simple as that and this whole car has been designed around him.

[Radio chatter between Andy Green and base]