The Ultimate Roller Coaster

Hang On for Your Life! (Forget Your Lunch)

by John MacNeill

John MacNeill

You are dangling like bait at the end of a 22-foot-long robotic arm, and it looks and feels exactly like you're zooming through space. It's tempting to gaze at distant planets, except that an asteroid as big as a house is hurtling toward you. Just before impact, you blast it with a phaser cannon while executing a series of buttery barrel rolls to avoid the debris. The asteroid bits pelt your ship, rattling you to the marrow. Then, without warning, you're sucked through the blackness of a wormhole–back into reality.

This is the future of the roller coaster, as told by a jolly 46-year-old Brit named Gino De-Gol, founder of an unusual company called RoboCoaster. What fuels his ambitious vision is a belief that the all-American icon of thrill, circa 2005, is fundamentally a one-trick pony. "You are stuck on a track, you know exactly where you are going, and the ride is always the same," De-Gol says in mock exasperation. What he has in mind is a hybrid ride, one that combines the high G-forces of today's coasters, the computer-generated trickery of virtual-reality simulators and, eventually, the interactivity of videogames. Propelled through a snaking series of domed theaters, riders will swing far out into a computer-generated universe to come face-to-face with aliens, navigate a pulmonary artery or, if they're so inclined, chase butterflies through the forest.

In 2002, two years after quitting his engineering job at KUKA Robotics, Europe's largest industrial-robot manufacturer, De-Gol wowed the amusement industry when he installed the world´s first passenger-certified robot at Legoland in Denmark. His innovation– He attached a double-seated chair to the end of a KR 500-a 5,000-pound aluminum robotic arm more commonly found lifting Mercedes-Benz engines so they can be spot-welded. The arm's six joints allow it to move any which way imaginable. Using a touchscreen, riders built their own thrills, choosing among barrel rolls, corkscrews and inversions. But with the robot bolted to the floor, De-Gol says, his first RoboCoaster was "more like a really wild bull ride."

Now he wants to mount KR 500s to a track and speed them along one after another. Propel a rider on a twisting, undulating trip while shaking him like a cat would a rat, and you greatly compound the physical stimulation. Which brings us to the project's highest hurdle: the upchuck factor. If your inner ear and your eyes send conflicting messages to your brain about your body's position–say, an alien lands on your ship, but the ride jerks a tenth of a second later-the illusion is shattered, and your body could revolt. Paul Evans, a mechanical designer at the engineering firm AMEC Dynamic Structures, which is partnering with RoboCoaster, is programming a series of KR 500 maneuvers to match, frame-by-frame, a 3-D film of a roller coaster ride, in large part to determine which moves are too . . . sick. "We don't exactly know what the human body will tolerate when we combine extreme movements with 3-D imagery," he says. The amusement-park industry doesn´t keep tabs on nausea, though, so how will De-Gol ensure that his ride is thrilling and enjoyable? "Guest satisfaction cards will tell us a lot," he enthuses. "The beauty is that we can simply go in and reprogram it."

The Road to Thrills

1873
Some 35,000 tourists pay $1 each to ride the Mauch Chunk Swithback Gravity Railroad in Pennsylvania. America's first mechanical roller coaster was built to transport coal.

1919

John Miller patents "under friction wheels," which grip coaster rails from the bottom , side and top, thus preventing cars from derailing. Now designers are free to create hairpin turns and sleep drops while keeping the cars on the track.

1956

Arrow Develpment engineers the first tublar-steel coaster track-Disneyland's Matterhorn which becomes the basis for all moder steel coasters. Steel proves more versatile than wood, clearing the way for loops.

2004

AMEC Dynamic structures and KURA Robotics demonstrate a prototype track-based RoboCoaster, in Orlando, Florida.

2008

RoboCoaster opens its first 3-D trace-based ride.