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How innovation happens part 1: outliers in the game of progress

September 17, 2015

Mehul Kapadia   

Blog contributor

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.

To succeed in outlier environments requires a combination of out of the box thinking, technical expertise and past experience. Designing solutions to meet the demands of these 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 our day-to-day lives.

“Failure is not an option”

Gene Kranz, Flight Director of the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions wasn’t referring to technology when he made that statement, but his sentiment holds true when it comes to space technology.

Space is a void populated by the unforeseeable and in which even the smallest issue can end in catastrophe – a ding from passing debris can see a satellite spinning out of orbit, a power failure means no life support systems, an interruption in communications would cut astronauts off from lifesaving 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 to not only be built with high-reliability design, but also be ultra-lightweight and ultra-low power to achieve production, cost and energy efficiencies.

It’s because of these extreme conditions that space technology innovators are responsible for a great number of breakthroughs that now populate 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 for better fuel efficiency. It is now used by leading aerospace manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing and is deployed in both passenger 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 has an outlier environment of its very own to thank for the rapid pace of innovation it maintains – Formula 1. A fraction of a second is the difference between success and failure in F1.

A winning  team needs a car that can reach a top speed of over 233mph; a driver with a reaction time of less than 0.4 seconds; and a crew that makes the 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 in addition to have 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 no matter the 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 similarly cooperative relationship with aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

The notoriously secretive 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 including active suspension, traction control, gearbox automation, fuel consumption and aerodynamics in every day street cars.

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

Speed data

A more recent F1 phenomenon is the impact of data and superfast connectivity via fibre on racing fortunes. During the heat of a 200mph race, engineers dissect information recorded by up to 150-200 sensors on the car in real-time. From this data, they can glean information to make split-second decisions on factors ranging from tyre pressure and fuel consumption to trends affecting past lap times.

As with in-car hardware and engineering, the data collection and analysis technologies used in F1 have also found new applications in other industries. For example, McLaren has applied its 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, to the monitoring of medical patients.

Likewise, Cosworth, a supplier of F1 engines and electronics, works alongside the UK Ministry of Defence providing its military accident data recorder and blast event and vehicle integrity system. These systems allow military personnel to gather more information about accidents and events on the battlefield.

Tata Communications’ Formula 1 Connectivity Innovation Prize is designed to take advantage of Formula 1’s outlier credentials by challenging teams of innovators to propose solutions to current technological challenges posed by the sport.

Participants must consider that the pit wall during trackside operations is one of the most extreme field-based engineering environments to work in, often with temperatures 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, which adds true value.

In my next post, I will discuss the growing relationship between technology and sport, looking at how other sports are taking drawing inspiration from F1, and in turn providing new outlier environments to stimulate future technological innovation.

Read part 2 of How innovation happens: The sporting outlier. You can also follow me on Twitter @mehulkapadia.


Tata Communications was the Official Connectivity Provider of Formula 1® between 2012 and 2019. Tata Communications was also the Official Managed Connectivity Supplier to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and Official Digital Transformation Partner to ROKiT Williams Racing until the end of the 2019 season.