Universal Studios opened its doors in 1990 offering tourists the chance to step inside their favorite movies. One of these rides, Jaws! featured a six-ton animated shark pushing 30,000 gallons of water each show.
Under the pressure, the giant animatronic Jaws was unable to perform repeatedly (and reliably) so Universal reached out to a company with extensive experience in both robotics and water – Oceaneering International.
Operating the largest fleet of underwater robotic vehicles, the company was an adept, yet unlikely ally, as their primary business was in offshore oil and gas exploration.
The giant man-eater was soon up and running, and Oceaneering Entertainment Systems (OES) was formed.
“We got our start in the industry and realized it is a pretty fun business, and a way to make some money, too,” says Bill Bunting, manager of business development, OES.
Decades later, OES has developed and installed many systems in theme parks across the world, and was recently honored by the Themed Entertainment Associated (TEA) for "Outstanding Achievement in Breakthrough Technology." The technology, the Revolution Tru-Trackless Ride System (TTS), is being described as the next great storyteller's tool to be used in many future attractions to come. The storyteller relates to the attraction as being more of an experience rather than simply an exhilarating ride.
Taking a Different Path
Most attractions, since their inception by Walt Disney in 1955, have run a follow the leader path, making one of the great advancements for the storyteller the ability for a ride to take different paths. Enabling this advancement have been developments in the automated guided vehicle (AGV) industry.
One company leading AGV research is Frog AGV Systems, a Dutch company developing AGV systems, as well as navigation hardware and software. Recently purchased by Oceaneering International, the company provided software for the TTS.
The software calculates ride speed and accelerations, inputting the data simultaneously so that the choreographed vehicles can operate in a ride space. "They can go out on the floor and appear to dance together," says Bunting.
While many systems use either a buried wire or other visual cues, the TTS lives up to its namesake, remaining truly trackless. "Our vehicles are truly free ranging. We can draw the ride path on the computer, the program is then downloaded into the vehicle, and [the vehicle] runs that path highly accurately and repeatedly," explains Bunting.
Designing a Truly Trackless System
OES brought together technology from multiple disciplines. In addition to the AGV industry, the company also pulled in power management and a battery charging system that Bunting describes as the ‘special sauce’ that makes it all possible.
"The system allows us to run the vehicles 24/7, taking advantage of opportunity charging in the load and unload stations," explains Bunting, as the rides are designed to operate up to 16 hours each day.
Once again seeking help from industry experts, the team turned inward toward their own space division (Oceaneering Space Systems) for fine tuning the charging system.
“OSS has done so much research in battery technology to put things up in outer space in extremely harsh environments, and they have to work every time,” explains Bunting.
“It challenges your engineering prowess to do things in a bunch of different realms. We are able to share these technologies that we develop and apply them to all kinds of different businesses,” he adds. “All of them, from an engineering standpoint, are interrelated. The same kind of technologies that we use in our ride systems can be used in the systems that are built for the Navy or even off-shore ROVs.”
Integration & Installation
The last piece of technology OES needed for the ride to succeed has only been available in the last couple of years – the ability to execute high volume data transfers over secure wireless networks.
"Three or four years ago, with the volume of data we had to pass, we just couldn't do it quickly enough and reliably enough," says Bunting. "Those systems have developed so much in the last few years that that was the last piece of technology that we needed to apply to the ride system and make it all work."
With the three pieces of technology in place – the battery system, navigation, and the ability to do high-volume data transfers – the team’s prototyping process remained fairly simple.
“We put together a rapid-prototyped vehicle, which incorporated all of these different technologies, to proof-of-concept the guest experience portion,” explains Bunting. “After all, everything we are doing really needs to support the guest experience and the storytelling, and the technology should be primarily invisible to them."
Building the vehicle took about eight weeks, but the most challenging aspect was integrating the many different technologies, including an additional overview system to provide the safety redundancy, which is required in the themed entertainment business.
"The third hierarchy of ride control system is programmable logic controller based, and provides the redundancy that we need to deploy it in a guest environment. It’s not workers in a warehouse anymore," says Bunting. "It's your grandma and your four year old."
Although many of the technologies were not originally developed for the ride system, OES brought them together to develop a new type of ride for the themed entertainment industry.
"We took these technologies that were available in other industries and put them together for the first time into a ride system technology and then added our mechanical design," explains Bunting. “It could be a covered wagon, a boat, or a spaceship, it doesn't really matter.”
The vehicles are scalable and can be manufactured to many shapes and sizes, making the Tru-Trackless Ride System “the show designer’s ultimate flexibility dream come true.”