The pessimists carried the day today.
We awoke to thick fog covering the airfield, which persisted through mid-morning. After a brief dose of sun, mid- and high-level cloud marched in. Temperatures reached into the 80s, but this was not enough to do much for our stable, warm air mass. Sniffers struggled gamely in very weak lift, but with no prospect of anyone achieving minimum distance (100 km) the day was cancelled around 3pm.
A significant development that’s in operation here at JWGC2017 is live real-time tracking of all gliders. This is made possible by the anti-collision (aka Flarm) devices all are required to carry. These continually broadcast their current and predicted position and receive the signals of all nearby gliders, so can warn of impending collision danger. It turns out to be easy to set up ground stations that can receive the signals of all gliders within about 80 km, and with an internet connection to forward these to a server that digests them all. So all here at Pociunai – and indeed glider racing fans anywhere – are able to see the positions and altitudes of all gliders, delayed by no more than a few seconds.
This certainly adds greatly to the interest of each daily race. Indeed, once you get involved watching a task it becomes hard to do anything else. You suffer with the pilots who are low and struggling, and you root for your pilots to find the good climbs and catch the pilots ahead.
This has far-reaching implications. What’s known on the ground is soon known in the air. At WGC events, crews are free to communicate tactical information to pilots – it can be extremely useful to know who’s ahead, how they are doing, where the air is bad, where strong climbs have been found, etc. This has potential to fundamentally change glider racing.
Looking far into the future it’s possible to imagine a day when the pilot becomes principally a “systems manager” or observer – most of the time the glider flies itself, doing a better job than most humans. Among other advantages, crowded thermals could presumably be fully safe when all gliders in them are electronically cooperating at least to the extent of avoiding collisions.
Taking this several steps further naturally leads to the question Why have the pilot at all? If an unpowered UAV can outfly a skilled glider pilot, why not ask the pilot to step aside? The sport then becomes both cheaper and safer. The only important disadvantage is, of course, that it’s not the same sport at all.
Many other sports face this same technology challenge. In auto racing, the driver is increasingly a weak link – computers are (for example) consistently better at applying the optimum amount of braking and throttle at the right times in each corner. Formula 1 – long the ultimate “cost is no object; anything goes” form of auto racing – has found it sensible to limit technology in various ways, in part to preserve the driver’s role: it’s thought that racing fans will lose interest if they believe driver is really just a passenger.
Curiously, even an activity like chess is not immune to the effects of advancing technology. Super computers are now better at chess than even the best humans; personal computers are not – but they can do analysis that is of real use even to a grandmaster. A player can gain an advantage if he has a confederate with a PC and a means of receiving secret communication (the technology for which improves every year). This is of course illegal, but it has happened more than a few times and is now an issue at all serious levels of the game.
I hasten to add that the above is just my rambling on the subject – I’m no better at gazing into a crystal ball than anyone. I hesitate to make any prediction other than the certainty of significant change.
John Good has been a member of the US Team at many World Gliding Championship events, serving as crew, Team Captain and report author. He was the Deputy Championship Director/ Task-setter at the 2012 WGC in Uvalde, Texas and brings a wealth of international rules knowledge as Captain.