There can be few more desolate places in the world than Hakskeen Pan, a flat, endless dried-out lake bed in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, near the border with Botswana and Namibia.
But that is precisely what has propelled it into the international spotlight. It is one of the few places in the world that is isolated enough, flat enough, and with the right terrain to support a bold quest.
The crust of the lake bed at Haksteen Pan is ideal for an attempt not only on the world landspeed record, but for the first land vehicle to travel at 1 600 kilometres per hour. Project Bloodhound will stretch the limits of a vehicle on wheels far beyond what was ever thought possible.
The man behind the project, the crusty British racing veteran Richard Noble, is no stranger to absurdly extreme feats like this.
“We’ve got a long history of doing it,” he said in an interview last week. “I broke the world land speed record in 1983. After that, we were up against the Americans to achieve the first ever supersonic ride in 1997, and we succeeded. In this case, we’re increasing the land speed record by a whopping 30%, and we’re convinced we can do it.”
The pilot will be Andy Green, but a vast team of engineers, researchers and other specialists has come together in pursuit of the vision.
“We’ve gone through a very difficult phase,” he said. “The weakness of a project like this is the finances. It’s a long-term project because of its considerable investment in terms of engineering. There have been a whole lot of financial setbacks, but the team has held together. In a lesser organisation people would have just walked, but they’ve absolutely stuck together.”
In the next two weeks, the car will go through its most critical test yet.
“We’ve got to get the car into what we call runway form, and where we work in Bristol is unsuitable for running a jet engine. So we will be running it in Newquay in Cornwall to prove that the car works and runs, but at this stage we will go no faster than 200 miles per hour.”
Part of the challenge is that the project is no longer only about engineering, as it was back in 1983 and 1997.
This time round, it remains as important, but is joined by technology that had barely arrived back then: the Internet, high-speed mobile connectivity, database software, and a wide variety of environmental sensors.
This combination means that the Bloodhound SSC (for supersonic car) will produce a massive amount of data that will be accessible instantly, worldwide. And that, in turn, will be used for one of the most ambitious global attempts inspire schoolchildren to want to learn about the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The car is being built and tested in the United Kingdom, but the project depends on Hakskeen Pan.
While the terrain provided the needed long, flat landscape and the right surface, it was also littered with rocks and stones. So the first essential piece of work was to clear the area by hand. The local Mier community was employed to do the job. Last year, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) presented certificates of recognition to over 300 members of the community for “the largest area of land ever cleared by hand for a motorsports activity”. They had removed 16 000 tonnes of rock from 22 million square metres of dry lake bed.
Project Bloodhound announced: “Their amazing work has been a vital part of building the world’s fastest race track and means that next year Andy Green can drive Bloodhound SSC at over 1400kph in Northern Cape, South Africa, without worrying about a single stray rock damaging the Car.”
The attempt, set for 2018, should have been made during 2017, but ran into a hitch and, Noble admitted in an interview last week, it was not a technical one. He had just presented a keynote address on the project at Oracle OpenWorld, a massive annual conference in San Francisco, where more than 60 000 people come to learn about the latest offerings from global database software giant Oracle. The company had already committed to providing the technology platform needed to share the car’s massive data output with the world.
At the event, Oracle’s president of product development, Thomas Kurian, announced that the company’s educational arm, Oracle Academy, would partner with Project Bloodhound to popularise STEM subjects.
“Effectively, Oracle is educating the world,” said Noble. “The idea came from the US manned space programme. When you study what happened with the Apollo programme, you see this enormous growth in the emergence of scientists, engineers and mathematicians as a result of interest in space flight.
“We were working so hard taking project Bloodhound forward, we didn’t have time to look over shoulder to see what we’d achieved. We asked the University of Swansea, which is working with us on the aerodynamics of Bloodhound, for a letter telling us what had happened as a result of the project.
“They said their engineering applications and intake were up 150% directly as a result of their work on Bloodhound. Intake of aerodynamics students was up 350%. The value of Bloodhound, to them, was 5-million pounds every year. Kids were coming from the USA to study at Swansea.”
Another research partner in the project, the University of Western England, saw even greater benefit: they valued the benefits of their work on Bloodhound over ten years at 77-million pounds.
“We were staggered. We had no idea this was the scale of what we were doing. The STEM education system had all but collapsed and the kids all wanted to be singers and dancers. They saw physics as impossible and teachers were really struggling. Inspiring children is the unique selling proposition of Project Bloodhound.”
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.