Automation and drives in theme parks
19 stycznia 2021

Theme parks are loved the world over, with operators constantly striving to maintain safety standards and optimize efficiencies. In this fiercely competitive market, how can new generation drives help them in their task?

The global market for amusement and theme parks is forecast to reach $44.3 billion (£35bn) by the end of 2020: a growth largely driven by a rising middle class in emerging countries who have a penchant for leisure spending and international tourism. The United States is the largest of the world’s theme park markets, and China is predicted to shortly become the fastest growing with a compound annual growth of 12.2%.

Apart from increased disposable income, global expansion is fueled by governments in general placing greater emphasis on tourism and entertainment. Big hitting names are also entering the stage: these include Europe’s Merlin Entertainment Group, America’s Disney, Universal, Six Flags and China’s OCT. As design and technology advances at break-neck speed, demand is for bigger and better rides that can reach the limits of physical possibility.

Such high consumer expectation brings new operational and safety challenges. Drives, electric motors and automation are the hidden heroes in meeting these challenges – not just by improving safety and reliability, but output and revenue too.

Amusement parks and operational savings

Operational costs are key to turning a profit in any theme park, and drive systems are pivotal to mechanical efficiency and energy saving.

An unavoidable cost is fuel, especially with heritage rides (named after the theme park in Colorado) where it is not uncommon for booms, cables, hydraulics and other essential moving components to run slower than optimal. This increases load requirement and generator output – and the result is higher fuel consumption.

Overcoming the problem can mean changing entire motor & electric systems, or revamping whole hydraulic systems: actions that are usually economically unviable. This is where automated drives come into their own, allowing rides to start up and run much more smoothly on much less power.

Automation and safety at theme parks

Safety is the overriding priority in any theme park, and equipment is subject to requisite upgrades and maintenance. An example of meeting safety regulations – and at the same time improving efficiency – is the ‘Dalton Terror’ vertical drop ride at the Walibi amusement park in Belgium. A drive-system refurbishment dramatically reduced the downtime for breakdown & repairs, increasing customer throughput. The upshot is reduced costs and increased revenue.

This zero-gravity ride has numerous safety and technical considerations. The faultless and precise upward and downward motion required is achieved using speed-controlled Leroy-Somer geared motors. These move the seats to the top of the tower prior to the free-fall phase before being safely and rapidly slowed (independent of power supply) by magnetic current brakes.

In order to upgrade and improve this ride’s system, AC drives and five 75kW Unidrive SPs were fitted as part of the renewal of the control panels. Signals from encoders fitted to each of the motors give feedback to the drives and then re-transmit to programmable logic controllers that control the safety of the entire system.

Variable speed drives in theme parks

As engineers and designers work for that extra thrill, free-fall is no longer enough and traditional chain-driven coasters and ‘gravity rides’ are typically being replaced with motors and drives that can offer more. For example, a roller coaster uses chains to hoist its cars along the track and up the first incline.

Descending down the other side is the fastest part of the ride, with the carriages slowing down as they complete the circuit. In order to increase the overall speed of the ride, the height of that first drop has to be increased.

The introduction of motors and their drives into the system allows for electrically powered mechanical motion, which can power the cars at a constant speed, relevant to the design limitations of the track. Linear induction (LIM) and linear synchronous (LSM) – common to AC motors – are typically used to produce rotary torque, and nowadays are commonplace on rollercoasters far and wide. They accelerate and decelerate carriages at any speed, forward or reverse.

Linear motors also have advantages over mechanical brakes, allowing sensors to slow the carriages more precisely and safely within the speed limitations for the turns on the track. The process works like a generator, sapping power out of the carriages and slowing them down; conversely – where the track permits – linear motors enable smooth, quick acceleration for speed and excitement.

In addition to rollercoasters, drop-towers and other attractions, latest generation drives contribute positively to the general running of theme parks through application in fans, water pumps, compressors and other ancillary equipment.

How do variable speed drives work in water parks?

An example is water-based rides, which require large pumps and filtration systems to ensure smooth running operations. Using two 30kW pumps to circulate water for filtration and to push the boats back to the starting position, the Splash Down ride at the Perth Royal Show used an old-fashioned diesel generator to power the two pumps – but this was proving costly and ineffective. The diesel generator was failing to consistently operate both pumps simultaneously – and was grossly fuel inefficient.

Operations were effectively saved by installation of two drives with precise ramp start settings (30 seconds each). With the frequency set to 50 Hz and the drives’ energy-optimising features engaged, Splash Down’s future was secure. With two 30kW motors drawing 20kW each at 50Hz, the drives allow for both pumps to be started simultaneously without stalling.

Another advantage of using drives is that they can be sped up to increase the flow rate, shortening turn-around time and allowing more customers to use the ride each day. The drives intelligently match energy usage to the pump load to ensure they operate at maximum efficiency and energy consumption meters allow savings to be calculated.

Drives are revitalizing theme parks in a new age: making it possible to provide more customers with more thrills – safely and profitably.

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