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Top tech roller coasters

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

By , Network World
August 03, 2009 01:58 PM ET

Network World - 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.

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