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Fearless pursuit to break the human speed limit gets help from the cloud

In 2013, Jessi Combs became the fastest woman on four wheels with an average speed of 406 miles per hour. Now, she wants to become the fastest woman on earth by breaking Kitty O’Neil’s 1976 land-speed record of 512 mph, a record she set in a three-wheeled vehicle.

The current land-speed record of 763 mph was achieved in 1997 by a British team on the silt playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. “They took the record on our soil,” laments North American Eagle team leader Ed Shadle, an Air Force veteran and co-driver of the jet-powered car. “We’re going to bring the record back to North America.”

“I’m not afraid of dying,” says Combs. “I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of it.”

After helping Combs claim the women’s land-speed record, Shadle’s next goal is to drive his converted F-104 Lockheed Starfighter faster than the speed of sound. “Our computer models tell us we can go 835 miles per hour,” he said. That’s fast enough to reclaim the world land speed record from England — at least for now. A new British team with deep pockets says they’ve designed a car that will go 1,000 mph.

The dangers are daunting and the race to go faster has claimed many lives along the way. Breaking the speed of sound on the ground has potentially terrifying consequences: The risk of the car taking flight increases exponentially with speed.

The quest for speed is a balancing act between keeping the jet-powered car from taking flight, while also preventing it from sinking into the desert.
The quest for speed is a balancing act between keeping the jet-powered car from taking flight, while also preventing it from sinking into the desert.

There’s also the danger of the ground disappearing, literally.

“The computer model indicates that the pressure wave generated at the sound barrier will actually liquefy the desert floor,” says Darren Grove, NAE computational fluid dynamics engineer. “So in addition to preventing liftoff, we don’t want the car to sink down either. It’s a balancing act at ridiculously high speeds.”

Shadle’s team of engineers, pilots, mechanics and computer gurus looks at each increase in speed as a calculated risk informed by grit, guts and advanced computational fluid dynamics. Between each test run, the team processes millions of data points that inform crucial adjustments to the jet car.

In the past, that meant suffering the same painfully slow ritual between runs: sending hard drives filled with sensor data to a regional supercomputer… and waiting. Today, the team gets what they need in hours, instead of weeks, thanks to the Microsoft Cloud.

Jessi Combs and her three-wheeled speed machine.
Jessi Combs and her three-wheeled speed machine.

“With the results comes the confidence to go faster,” says Grove. “When the data from the on-board sensors matches what the model says should be happening, we know we’re safe to push a little harder.”

“The cloud is a huge accelerator for North American Eagle,” adds Steve Wallace, NAE data acquisition engineer.

The team’s foray into cloud computing was inspired by 18-year-old Brandyn Bayes, NAE’s newest — and youngest — member of the team. The project’s co-founder Keith Zanghi met Bayes while mentoring a local high school robotics competition. “This kid was helping other teams troubleshoot their software problems. I knew he was going to have an opinion about our operation at NAE. I was right.”

Bayes recently redeployed LandSpeed.com on Microsoft Azure cloud services to manage the elastic demand for NAE media assets, and implemented Office 365 to improve team collaboration and communication with sponsors. He then set out on a more ambitious mission: reducing the time from data to insight.

North American Eagle team leader Ed Shadle, an Air Force veteran and co-driver of the jet-powered car.
North American Eagle team leader Ed Shadle, an Air Force veteran and co-driver of the jet-powered car.

Bayes and Grove now transfer millions of data points to the Microsoft cloud from a mobile hotspot in the desert. They spin up a constellation of high-powered virtual machines to run the sensor data against the computational fluid dynamics models, and return the results to a Power BI dashboard.

“The cloud is increasing our rate of progress toward the land-speed record,” Grove explains.

Shadle hopes the North American Eagle will claim the record before the British team, but it will take equal parts computing power and good luck to get there. Every run brings more confidence — and more anxiety.

“I feel like we’re coming around the last turn on the track,” Shadle says. “Our legs are burning, and we can feel the competition behind us. But we’re focused on that finish line at the end of the straightaway.”

Check back to see if NAE’s historic attempt to push the boundaries of risk and speed results in heartbreak or history…


Images courtesy of North American Eagle.