Top tech roller coasters

These rip-roaring rides use the latest sensors, computers and networks to thrill and secure riders

Nothing says summer better than a roller coaster ride. Your hair whipping in the wind, you go plunging, soaring, twisting and turning hundreds of feet above the ground with your screams silenced by the roar of the train.

Slideshow: Images of these rollercoasters

Behind those vertical dives and loop de loops are cutting-edge computer systems that are used to thrill riders and to keep them safe. Indeed, the industrial-strength sensors, Ethernet-based control systems, wired and wireless networks that power today's roller coasters and rides use technology familiar to corporate IT executives.

Amusement parks also turn to computerized design and fabrication of their rides to make construction more precise. Maintenance operations and safety checks are computer monitored, and the rides are operated by automated control systems. The latest rides incorporate computer-generated -- and increasingly customized -- audio and visual effects.

Here's our list of the nation's top tech roller coasters and a brief description of the computers that make each of them work. Hopefully, you'll get a chance to visit an amusement park this summer and enjoy one of these rides.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort is opening a roller coaster this summer that will be the first to offer a user-customized audio and visual experience. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit lets riders choose the songs they want to hear during the coaster ride from a selection of popular rock, rap, electronica, pop and country songs.

"We have an onboard guest-selectable audio system that works like an MP3 player. Each seat has its own isolated stereo system, so each person on the ride is able to listen to their own song and that song is isolated from everybody else," explains Louis Alfieri, creative director for Universal Studios.

Riders don't wear headphones. Instead, the roller coaster's seats are formed in such a way that the audio waves go only to the person in the seat and are isolated from the other riders. Each seat is outfitted with Polk Audio marine-grade stereo speakers that provide 90 decibels of music, yet those songs aren't heard by the other riders.

Riders choose their songs -- ranging from "Gimme All Your Lovin'" by ZZ Top to "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer or "Midnight Rider" by The Allman Brothers -- using a personal touchpad mounted on the lap bar. "It's the highest quality audio on any coaster," Alfieri says.

The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit also incorporates 14 digital cameras onboard the trains and along the track that record high-quality digital video of each rider's experience. Lasers and computers ensure that the rider sees music and video that are in sync during the ride. Afterwards, each rider's custom video is sent via a wireless network to a kiosk where a DVD is rendered and sold as a souvenir.

"The video features the music you selected plus 14 live shots of you on the coaster," Alfieri says. "You're also able to put you and your friends' names and other comments on the video in specific areas."

The ride itself is impressive, featuring stadium-style seats and lap bars rather than shoulder harnesses. The train rides over a treble-clef shaped track that reaches 17-stories high and over several loops at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.

The roller coaster uses a control system that includes Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) that synch up using a wireless network to control the seven trains operating on the track.

"This is the most complicated roller coaster control system that's ever been achieved," Alfieri says. "It's not only the control system but the video onboard and offboard and that every seat has customized audio."

Universal Orlando also boasts features on its Web site that allow riders to interact with the new coaster before and after visiting the park.

"On our Web site, you can sample all of the music on the coaster, you can experience the coaster and you can do all sorts of other activities," Alfieri says.

Manta at Sea World Orlando

Manta , the newest thrill at Sea World Orlando, puts you in a unique position to twist, turn and soar over the amusement park. To ride this coaster, you're strapped onto the underbelly of a Manta Ray-shaped train in a head-first, face-down position so there's nothing between you and the aquariums 140 feet below.

One of the world's few flying coasters, Manta hits speeds up to 56 miles per hour, has a near-miss with a waterfall, and incorporates a heart-thumping wing dip.

"What makes this flying coaster different from others is that it flies over the lagoon and does a wing dip. It has close calls with a rock wall and waterfalls. It has other maneuvers such as loops and barrel rolls," says Tim Carrier, director of park operations at Sea World Orlando. "A flying coaster is the perfect way to experience how a Manta swims undersea."

Opened in May, Manta uses state-of-the-art computer technology. Sensors are placed along the 3,359 feet of steel track, in the station and on each train.

"The 144 sensors onboard the trains are talking to Programmable Logic Controllers sensing the various aspects of the trains: the positions of the seats, the locking pens, are the seats engaged or not. All of that information is fed into a control system," Carrier says. "Once the train is dispatched from the station, the sensors are monitoring where the trains are on the track. There are six blocks on the Manta ride, and no two trains can occupy the same block."

Computerized special effects enhance the Manta ride. During the train's wing dip, computer-operated water pumps create a rooster-tail spray of water to simulate the wing of the train actually hitting the water.

"The riders could possibly get slightly wet, but they do not come into direct contact with the water," Carrier explains. "They also come really close to the waterfall. We call it kissing the waterfall. The riders think they're going to go right through it and then the train turns."

Also computerized are the ride's sound effects -- the whoosh you hear when the train lifts up and puts you in a horizontal position. There are images of water, light and shadow rippling on the walls of the station to simulate a Manta swimming.

Disney's Toy Story Mania!

Disney's most technologically advanced ride isn't a roller coaster. It's an interactive experience called Toy Story Mania!, which combines moving vehicles, computer generated 3-D images and shoot 'em up action. Toy Story Mania! opened at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., and its Hollywood Studios Park in Orlando last year.

Read more about Disney's WiFi-enabled rides

With Toy Story Mania!, riders wear 3-D glasses and view 3-D images of the characters from the Toy Story movies. Riders pass by five classic carnival games and use an on-board shooting device to throw pies, toss rings or otherwise interact in a virtual way with the games. Ten-inch LCD displays on the vehicles show riders how many points they've racked up during each game.

Behind the scenes at Toy Story Mania! are 154 graphics workstations running Windows XP that are used to render 3-D images at 60 frames per second. The workstations communicate via an industrial-strength wireless network based on 802.11a technology.

"There are a lot of computers because there's a lot of rendering going on," says John Noonan, technical director of show control systems for Walt Disney Imagineering. "Each scene has its own rendering computer, and for each scene it is rendering the 3-D images in real time at 60 frames per second."

Toy Story Mania! has 56 screens, and each has its own rendering computer. The computers are high-end PCs with powerful graphics cards and special digital audio cards. These PCs render the ride's 3-D images and match them up with the appropriate sound effects, such as the pop when a dart hits a balloon.

Additionally, the ride's peanut-shaped vehicles, which seat eight people, have onboard computer gaming systems for each pair of riders.

The onboard computer "gathers information about the pitch and yaw of each shooter and pulls rotational information about the turret. It knows within an inch where the vehicle is around the track in the building," Noonan explains. "It takes all of those numbers and crunches them appropriately so it can draw the correct physics of the projectile image. And it does this every 60th of a second. That's how we make it look like you just shot something out of your shooter."

Toy Story Mania! has a separate ride control system, which is similar to the type used in roller coasters. In addition to the onboard gaming systems, the vehicles have PLCs that manage how the vehicles move across the track.

"The ride control computer is what's keeping track of where the vehicle is…It knows within one inch where it is in the building and the rotational position of the turrets," Noonan says. "All of that information is collected in real time and gets constantly refreshed and integrated into the onboard gaming computers…In order for this ride to work, it had to be tightly integrated."

SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Once you strap on the shoulder harness for SheiKra, you've given up all control. The floor drops out, leaving your legs dangling in the breeze. Then you're hoisted up 200 feet and perched over a precipice for four heart-racing seconds before you plunge down a 90 degree drop at 70 miles an hour.

With its 2007 redesign, SheiKra became the techiest roller coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. At any point in time, SheiKra has five trains racing along its track or loading passengers in the station. Keeping track of all of these trains is a cutting-edge control system.

"We have the entire track divided up into what the roller coaster industry calls blocks, so that one train can occupy a block and a second train can never get in there," says Mark Rose, vice president of design and engineering for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Sensors line SheiKra's 2,950 feet of steel track, its five trains as well as each seat on the trains. These sensors communicate in real time across a wired Ethernet network to PLCs from Allen-Bradley

"We have redundant computers in the central control room checking the same signals," Rose says. "The control system operates the ride, speeds it up, advances the trains, and handles all of those kinds of commands."

Rose says SheiKra is a more thrilling -- and safer --  roller coaster because of the computer systems used in its design and fabrication.

"What's innovative is the design and manufacturing of today's roller coasters," Rose says. "Thirty years ago, roller coasters were 60 feet high. Now we're stretching beyond 400 feet …. Because of computers, we had the confidence that we could go 90 degrees straight down. Our confidence level was high that we could make the geometry smooth and comfortable from such a height and steep angle. All of that is from the ability to do it with computers."'

Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point Amusement Park

Located in Sandusky, Ohio, Cedar Point is the roller coaster capital of the United States with its unmatched 17 roller coasters. The park's much copied Top Thrill Dragster was the top ride in its day and remains a marvel of engineering, thanks to its hydraulic launching system.

The tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world when it debuted in 2003, Top Thrill Dragster still gets your blood pumping with its rocket-style launch. The train is propelled forward, reaching speeds of 120 miles per hour in just four seconds. Then the train rises 420 feet straight up, flips on its side and free falls back to Earth.

Behind this scream-inducing ride are Pepperl+Fuchs sensors distributed throughout 2,800 feet of steel track. These sensors record the positions of the trains and send that real-time data over a Rockwell Automation ControlNet network to the ride's control system. .

"It uses Rockwell control logics processors for the ride control system," says Larry Shivak, manager of electrical systems at Cedar Point. "It has a main and a safety PLC. The I/O is checked and sent back and forth between the two processors to make sure everything agrees. The safety PLC is there for diagnostics, troubleshooting and to report the status of the ride, but it doesn't control the ride."

Cedar Point's newest ride is Maverick, a launch-style roller coaster introduced in 2007 that uses a flat motor instead of a typical round motor. Maverick's linear synchronized motor moves the train at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour through a 400-foot tunnel and around 10 banked turns.

"The linear synchronized motor allows you to control the speed very accurately and to launch the train vey quickly in the tunnel," Shivak says. "The way it sends you up the lift is quite smooth and faster than other rides. It doesn't have lifts or chains or mechanical features. It's all electrical."

Like Top Thrill Dragster, Maverick uses Pepperl+Fuchs sensors on its 4,450-feet track and Rockwell Automation control logics for its main and safety PLCs. With both rides, these computerized control and safety systems keep riders safe.

"The main PLC and the safety PLC and a third block system all have to agree. There's no ifs, ands or buts," Shivak says. "As soon as something doesn't agree, the ride immediately shuts down and you have to go and verify where the problem is."

Storm Runner at Hersheypark

Hersheypark says the most innovative of its 11 roller coasters is Storm Runner.

Built in 2004, Storm Runner features a hydraulic launching system that propels riders from zero to 72 miles per hour in less than two seconds. With drops of up to 185 feet, multiple barrel rolls and a so-called snake dive, Storm Runner was the first launch-style roller coaster with inversions. This 2,700-feet-long ride takes you out of the station and back in less than a minute.

"Storm Runner was the only launching roller coast with ride elements called inversions -- barrel rolls and overloops. Many of the other launching coasters go up a hill and down and done," says Kent Bachmann, a mechanical engineer with Hersheypark. "This ride is actually woven into the old part of the park. We interact with five other attractions, going over water and under the monorail."

But what's most innovative about Storm Runner is a feature that you can't see: the energy savings in the design of the ride.

The ride's nitrogen-powered propulsion system and magnetic breaking systems helped reduce the ride's power consumption by half, from 5 megawatts of power with its initial design to 2.5 megawatts of power.

"When we designed Storm Runner, we were looking to design a linear induction motor system, but we did the calculations and we were going to turn the lights on and off in Hersheypark," Bachmann says. "What we ended up doing is knocking the power consumption down by half by using nitrogen gas and oil to launch the 12-ton trains."

Sensors line the 185-foot-long launch track and key control points on the rest of the track. These sensors feed data into the ride's computerized control system about the position and speed of the trains.

"I can log into the computer, and it gives me the launch speed, the dynamics of loading. I can see all of these safety issues such as where the valve is and where the encoder is on the drive," Bachmann says.

Bachmann says the future of roller coasters is like Universal's Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, where you can customize your experience on the ride.

"I think you're going to start seeing a lot more sensory play," Bachmann says. "You're going to start seeing a lot of visual effects so your mind is being engaged other than just the physical."

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