Canadian Consulting Engineer

Scary Rides

August 1, 2005
By Paul H. Boge, P. Eng.

Who says engineering can't be a blast?...

Who says engineering can’t be a blast?

One of the greatest challenges and most rewarding experiences in engineering is creating new technology to improve people’s lives. Sometimes that comes in the way of making better facilities, transportation or medical systems.

And sometimes it comes in the way of giving people the ride of their lives.

Enter AMEC’s Dynamic Structures division based in Port Coquitlam, B.C. and robotics giant KUKA based in Germany. The two companies looked at the traditional rollercoaster and decided they could revamp the entire concept and bring a new experience to theme parks. Kuka began by looking to create static robots for entertainment purposes. But when they teamed up with Amec the result was a brand new approach to how people will enjoy thrill rides.

Their solution? The revolutionary RoboCoaster G2.

“Unlike rollercoasters, which are a ‘train’ of cars on a track, a RoboCoaster G2 is a very agile single robot ‘car,'” says John Kageorge, communications manager for Amec. “Current rollercoasters give away all their secrets to the rider by simply following a track, which the rider sees and anticipates. RoboCoaster G2, however, doesn’t simply move forward and backward on a track; it has multiple planes of motion. It can go side-to-side, spin, rotate … all motions that can’t be anticipated simply by viewing the track.”

That’s not all. Kageorge explains that RoboCoaster G2 provides “4D technology so that people don’t simply ride; they experience an adventure. For example, this technology allows riders to enter into a scene of a movie, projected around them, and feel as if they are a part of it.”

David Halliday, P.Eng. is vice-president and director of special projects at Amec. He oversees the complete design and construction of RoboCoaster G2 projects and is passionate about the product he and his team have created.

“The G2 provides people with a 4D experience,” says Halliday. “Not only do they experience a 3D story with animated characters interacting with them, but also the RoboCoaster itself moves, providing the fourth dimension of motion as you watch the movie.” RoboCoaster G2 riders wear 3D glasses to enter into this strange world and progress through various story stages. It’s a new kind of ride that integrates motion and visual effects.

A thirst for entertainment

The timing couldn’t be better. The western world is increasing its demand for entertainment products and theme parks are working hard to attract and keep visitors.

Halliday points out that for thrill rides the parks require 1,800 to 2,000 people per hour to experience the attraction. They needed to find a way to keep people coming back.

One way to keep drawing people back to a ride is by using the element of suspense. Space Mountain in Disneyworld has a ride that takes place in darkness — that way people have no idea when the dip or curve is coming. Disney-MGM’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith in Florida uses an incredible burst of speed at the beginning that leads into a darkened area so riders waiting in line aren’t able to predict the experience.

RoboCoaster goes even further by asking the question: What if it were possible to customize the ride itself?

“The future of the industry lies in robotics because it has the capability of individualizing the experience for each rider,” Kageorge says.

“Traditional iron rides are reaching their limit,” says Halliday. “They capture only a portion of theme park traffic and once riders have a sense of where the turns take place they can become accustomed to [them]. But now you have a ride that captures everybody.”

RoboCoaster G2 is fully programmable for each individual ride. Teens can hop on one car and the attendant can program a fast, hip ride. If the next group in line prefers the slower, less intense version, no problem; they can opt to go through at a different pace. Both groups see the same visual effects, but they experience different robotic movements along the track. Essentially, you can “order your own ride,” Halliday explains, “making it possible to have different rides within the same venue.”

Reprogramming allows the theme park to keep the visual side the same but change the motion to make it seem like a whole new ride. Each robot holds four people. The robot is attached to a carriage and the carriage is attached to a track. There could be three to seven individual screens and you go from one area to another experiencing a progressive story. “Riders can be saved by superheroes, soar past galaxies, or experience adventures around the world,” explained Ron Kelly of Amec when the full scale model was showcased for the first time in Orlando, Florida last November.

Software overcomes physics

Christon Manzella is the key technology manager for Kuka Robotics. He explains that the human tolerance for spinning devices, launch mechanisms and other mechanical features is limited by physics. But with the introduction of robots into the thrill ride, the system is governed by software. The combination creates an interactive experience. “The RoboCoaster combines the latest mechanical device — a robot with a 15-foot reach, millimetre accuracy, and speeds of 12 feet per second — with tens of millions in software advancements that allow the guest to feel like he’s floating on air, diving underwater, or flying a jet.” The software component provides the thrill ride industry with a whole new outlook, causing Manzella to believe “there will be a huge change in the purchasing direction from hard automation [roller coaster] to favour flexible automation [robots].”

In a traditional iron ride there are two loads: loads from acceleration and loads from the rate of change of acceleration, called jerk. Sometimes, the track and car can be subjected to a 9G force. So it becomes possible, through prolonged exposure, to overload the material and over time run into problems of fatigue.

RoboCoaster rethinks this approach by creating motion through drive. The robot has the advantage of being able to move independently of the carriage and can reach a distance as far back as 4.5 metres and as far forward as 4.5 metres, giving a reach of 9 metres relative to movement of the carriage. So if the robot moves forward and the action on the screen moves backward you create an illusion of motion. This way it is possible to overcome fatigue issues.

Safety and human endurance

Brand new technology brings with it the increased responsibility of evaluating safe performance. RoboCoaster went through a detailed process to become licensed to carry humans. For example, there are four levels of redundancy. All the drive systems, limit switches, velocity meters, strain gauges and other components have their own dedicated means to shut themselves down.

In engineering for thrill rides, the human factor is also one that designers must take into consideration. Halliday explains that “the RoboCoaster has six degrees of freedom. … The challenge is to marry the amount of load into the human body to the visual side in order to give a thrill.”

The six degrees of freedom refer to the rotational ability on the x, y and z axes enabling the rider to experience movement in all directions. But a ride of this kind requires designers to analyze the G-force on people’s bodies. The human load is broken down into two components — radial and spinal. The radial load is what passengers in a car feel when banking around a curve. The spinal load refers to the axial load down the torso of the body. The average human limitation is 1.9G, which became a design factor in creating RoboCoaster to ensure that people are not exposed to excess loading.

The field of thrill rides could be opening another dimension in our diverse profession: Entertainment Engineering. Perhaps the increasing desire for excitement and the need for analytical and design skills will mesh to create this new discipline.

Halliday says it will be about a year
until we see a RoboCoaster G2 in North America. If, the next time you’re at a theme park you find yourself climbing aboard one of these revolutionary rides, you can take comfort in knowing that engineers are safely entertaining you to the limit.

Paul H. Boge is an engineer with Boge & Boge in Winnipeg. He is the author of The Chicago Healer.


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