Richard Noble, Bloodhound project
Group editor Graham Pitcher talks to Richard Noble, entrepreneur and record breaker
As you might expect from someone who is focused enough to tackle seemingly improbable projects – ranging from World Land Speed Record attempts to building his own planes – Richard Noble has some strong opinions and a personality to match.
He doesn't particularly like the City of London and its approach to funding engineering. He doesn't particularly like companies with anything but a flat management structure and he thinks, like many others, that without some immediate efforts, engineering in the UK is likely to disappear.
Richard Noble, it could be argued, is one of a dying breed: the British eccentric.
He's best known for his successful attempts to capture and hold the World Land Speed Record; Noble drove Thrusts I and II and was project director for Thrust SSC, which holds the current record at 763mph or Mach 1.02.
Now, in response to perceived threats to the speed record from North America, Noble has launched the Bloodhound project. And, like his previous undertakings, he is aiming high: Bloodhound is being designed to exceed 1000mph.
The lure of speed
With a life long interest in all things to do with speed, Noble first decided to attempt the Land Speed Record in the early 1970s.
"By day, I was selling plastic moulds for GKN," he recalled. "By night, I was building Thrust I – essentially a jet engine on a truck chassis."
Following a big accident, Thrust I was scrapped for £175 and the money was used to start work on Thrust II with designer John Ackroyd. Thrust II reached 500mph on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. "But the flats flooded and it took another two years to get the record," Noble noted. In capturing the record, Noble achieved an impressive 633mph.
The process of designing the car and capturing the record was informative for Noble. "I learned a lot, including different ways of working. There's a buzz from creativity, from working with creative engineers. And as you get the hang of it, you get a good feel of how things should be and you start asking questions like 'why don't we do this?'."
Never one to ignore a challenge, Noble turned his attention to the water. It was about the time when Richard Branson was making attempts on the Atlantic crossing record – the so called Blue Riband. "We saw the challenge as crossing the Atlantic without refuelling," Noble recalled. His solution was the Atlantic Sprinter 'an extraordinary boat powered by an RB211 jet engine'.
But Atlantic Sprinter never challenged for the record. "We got as far as putting up the assembly hall, then the country went into recession. We'd used some advanced techniques in designing the hull and these could have revolutionised the British shipbuilding industry. But they didn't want to know; they weren't interested in innovation."
While Noble was focused on Atlantic Sprinter, US speed record legend Craig Breedlove was planning an attempt on Thrust II's record. And Noble also found that the Maverick project, led by the McLaren F1 team, had similar ambitions.
"So we had to set a target and that was to go supersonic," Noble said.
Thrust SSC was designed in part by Ron Ayers, a retired aerodynamicist and a part time guide at the historic Brooklands facility in Surrey. "We started to move the project forward," Noble continued. "We did the CFD at Swansea University and validated the design at DERA's Pendine facility. And we got a huge response from the public; people love technical content."
Thrust SSC was a challenging project. "It was an enormously complex car," Noble admitted, "with some 120 data channels." Getting hold of that data and analysing it proved a major challenge. "Thrust II got within 7mph of taking off," he admitted, "and we didn't know because getting data from the car was such a slow operation."
Noble believes the secret of Thrust SSC's success came from the team's management structure – there were only 15 full time staff. "It was flat," he noted, "and empowered everyone. People could do what they wanted, but they had to communicate.
"A lot of clever people don't succeed in hierarchical companies," he claimed, "because they're only interested in technology. We're different; we give them an opportunity to show what they can do. It's all about who you are and what you can do."
Noble says being set aside from the 'day to day' gives him an interesting perspective of what he sees as an 'island culture'.
"The UK is the most incredible powerhouse of skills and creativity," he claimed. "Is it because we have an oppressive attitude to technology and creativity that we survive?
"But we have a 'can do' culture in the UK and we survive, regardless of problems in getting finance. If we have this capability, why aren't we looking after the culture?"
The next generation
Noble's mind is focused again on the Land Speed Record through Bloodhound. "As an iconic project," Noble contended, "Bloodhound couldn't just be 10% faster than Thrust SSC. So we've set the goal at Mach 1.4, or 1000mph. It's a huge undertaking, but it has to be something that makes people's jaws drop.
But alongside the target of 1000mph, Noble also has a far bigger target in mind: inspiring the next generation of engineers. "We are lucky to be working with people on the education side of things, including the Royal Academy of Engineering."
With his partners, Noble is putting together a programme to run in schools. "It's an enormous undertaking," he admitted. "But already more than 1000 schools have applied and 835 are using the programme. We hope another 700 primary schools will be added in the next few months. If we get this right, we can really make a change."
Noble claims the project has been well received. "Teachers love it because it puts engineering into context. And it's not just mechanical engineering; there's electronics involved as well. Electronics is often seen as something mystical and nobody understands what's going on inside. Bloodhound is all about changing that."
But even with his 'can do' outlook, Noble is happy to accept that not every project will succeed. "We have to keep trying. Bloodhound may fail, but we hope not; we're attempting something that has never been tried before. If we find we can't do it, we'll stop and say 'we can't do it'. We won't have failed, however, because we hope that we will have inspired thousands of kids."
Richard Noble is one of the judges of the British Engineering Excellence Awards and will be making the keynote address at the Awards lunch on 1 October 2009.
For more on Bloodhound, click here.
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