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Brawny Italian brings high-tech brains to America's Cup yacht

By Noel Randewich

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Gilberto Nobili is an IT guy, but he doesn't sit in an office like other information technology workers. His workspace skims across San Francisco Bay at 50 miles per hour.

The Java developer and Oracle Team USA crew member is using personal electronics like smartphones and tablets to give his side a high-tech edge in the upcoming America's Cup regatta between the most advanced sailboats ever built.

The tech-savvy 6-foot 3 inch Italian is one of Oracle's muscular grinders. A grinder uses brute strength and athletic conditioning to crank handles furiously on winches that precisely control the tall "wing" sails and other adjustable parts of these complex 72-foot catamarans.

The boats are designed to lift out of the water at high speed and hydrofoil on the dagger boards, which are raised and lowered from each hull.

"We're still testing stuff, deciding which is the faster board and the faster sail. As sailors, we go by feeling but we also need numbers. The final call about what is fastest comes from the numbers," said Nobili, who put his engineering studies on hold 13 years ago for a chance to sail professionally.

After Swedish challenger Artemis Racing suffered a fatal accident in May when its catamaran broke apart and flipped, a top priority for Cup participants has been to strike the best balance between speed and stability. Onboard electronics play a key part.

Advances in technology, including computational fluid dynamics and the ability to process growing amounts of data, have given boat designers advantages they could have only dreamed of in past America's Cups.

Races are set to start in early July to choose which of three teams challenge previous winner Oracle, backed by software billionaire Larry Ellison. Final matches are in September.

Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill depends on real-time information from Nobili and others to optimize the performance of the boats, referred to as AC72s, which many experts believe are too hard to maneuver in San Francisco Bay's heavy winds and rip currents.

Since the Oracle team won the 2010 Cup in Valencia, Spain, it got to call most of the shots for this year's regatta, like its location in San Francisco Bay.

Oracle also created the basic specifications for the AC72s being used in the regatta. Teams do have leeway to use their own technology to customize the boats, estimated to cost about $8 million each.

Challengers Artemis Racing, Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge and Emirates Team New Zealand also use more data and electronics than ever, but on Ellison's team, top technology is a point of pride.

WATER RESISTANT

Each AC72 is covered in hundreds of sensors measuring pressure from wind, water and the hydraulics used to control its sails, dagger boards and rudders.

Fiber-optic cables built into the hull and other parts of the boat minutely measure how much different sections flex due to water pressure.

All of that is fed into an onboard computer custom-built with an Intel Atom chip. That computer crunches data and then sends out information to more than 30 Android mobile devices on board, including smartphones strapped to each sailor's arm and tablets strategically placed near winches and other boat controls.

Working with Java, the widely used programming language owned by Oracle, Nobili has customized the team's smartphones and tablets to display different sets of data to help each crew member do his specific job. And out on the bay, he hears about it whenever a teammate's phone or tablet stops working.

He has disabled touch control on the team's smartphones and tablets because splashes from the bay kept being misread as finger touches.

After using Microsoft Windows handheld devices in the 2010 Cup, which Nobili said did not stand up well to the elements, he switched to Android.

"The combination of Android and Java gives me a lot of freedom. I can write code but I'm not limited to any one piece of hardware. I can swap phones whenever I find a new one," said Nobili, one of Oracle's international crew from Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, Holland, England and the United states.

The team has been using Sony Ericsson smartphones and South Korea's Pantech tablets, devices Nobili describes as tough, but unsophisticated compared with the latest offerings from Samsung Electronics and Apple. Team sponsor TAG Heuer recently sent over Racer Sub Nano luxury smartphones although crew members have yet to adopt them.

"Water resistance, quality of display in the sun, and battery life," Nobili said, describing what he looks for in mobile devices.

(Editing by Alden Bentley)

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