How to: funkify roller-coasters

They've flipped us, spun us and certainly made us queasy. What's next for roller-coasters?

2006 | 2005

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The race for roller-coaster supremacy has always been based on who could drive riders faster, higher and harder. When that concept got tired, theme parks sent us down rides backward, upside down or spinning. So what's next? Building theme-based coasters that are less stomach churning and more interactive, like the RoboCoaster G2.

Built by AMEC Dynamic Structures Ltd., the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based division of international infrastructure services giant AMEC, RoboCoaster is a roller-coaster with a programmable robot attached to each car. The robot can provide six degrees of motion, while the car sends riders through a series of theatres that are based on movie themes, complete with visuals, audio and props. “You can create smooth motion, so you can be flying as though you were in a hang-glider and you would absolutely believe you were there,” says David Halliday, vice-president.

Doing this is trickier than just bolting a robot to a four-wheeled carriage, clamping the whole thing onto a girder and driving it along a track. For one thing, if the motion of the robot and the movie being screened in the track space is out of sync by even 1%, riders will get motion sickness. To address this, AMEC uses software to reference every movie frame to the robot's motions — a process called profiling. These motions are then tweaked by staff, who ride the rails and provide feedback.

In addition, while the robot is executing one move, it has to get into position for the next move without alerting the rider. Engineers play with different axes and relative positions with drive and control tools to smooth out the ride, while taking both cantilevered and dynamic loads into consideration — the robot is constantly swinging around the carriage, creating stresses on the equipment. Halliday says AMEC has developed safety nets called Golden Profiles to manage all the motions, show sets, themes, movies and robots. Exceed the defined limits, and the ride automatically shuts down.

Currently, RoboCoaster is just a prototype, but Halliday says AMEC is set to sell one, with a planned 2009 opening. It takes three years to build — twice as long and as expensive as a traditional high-end coaster — but then it's a lot easier to reinvent this ride, ensuring new thrills every summer. All together now: “Aieeeeeeee!”