A year to go: engineering sport for London 2012

The common perception of engineering and sport is that of shiny new bikes, aerodynamic helmets and sleek bobsleds.  I often get asked, “isn’t it just the best equipment that wins now, rather than the athlete?”  The answer – as far as I’m concerned – is obviously “no” and I’ve spent my working life in the field of sports engineering.  I’ll explain why.

Skeleton bobsleigh simulation using ANSYS (formerly Fluent) CFD, and Ensight software. Skeleton and slider model of Kristan Bromley created from 3D laser scanning and surfacing with Geomagic Studio.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a celebration at the Houses of Parliament to celebrate the ‘backroom’ achievements of the engineers and scientists used by UK Sport.  On the main stage was Amy Williams (UK’s skeleton bobsleigh Gold medalist from Vancouver), along with “Arthur” her trusty sled.  It’s easy to see ‘Arthur’ as the gold medal winner, the sled and its development project won The Engineer’s Sports Innovation Award in 2010. Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the part the athlete and coaches at the English Insitute of Sport and British Skeleton played in the gold medal.  The truth behind the technology is that there is a interdisciplinary team looking at anything and everything that might help get a podium finish.   This team is made up of UK Sport’s elite Innovation Partners including engineers at Sheffield Hallam University, aerodynamicists at Southampton University and manufacturing engineering at BAe Systems.

Since budgets are limited, the question is always asked, “what help can we give which gives the sport the biggest bang for our buck?”  The answer is rarely a new sled or a new bike.   Technology in sport is about a summation of small advances, quite often in unrelated areas. For example, much of our current work for UK Sport is about performance analysis, where we monitor the ebbs and flows of performance and the effects of new coaching, tactics, nutrition, strength and conditioning and of course new equipment.

iboxer in use at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

Over the last two years we have developed an award winning system in conjunction with the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield called iBoxer. The system uses a series of cameras to monitor boxers’ movements in the ring, which is fed directly to a series of touchscreen monitors in the gym. The athletes can go over the footage between bouts in order to analyse and improve performance, define fight strategy and gain a better understanding of their opponents’ tactics. Once the athlete has completed a three-minute sparring round or training session they can come out of the ring and get immediate video feedback on the aspects important to the session. The iBoxer system also stores the judges’ scores and videos for thousands of bouts, which can easily be searched using a laptop or touchscreen PC.

The system has been well received by the boxers and is unique in world boxing, which has been using performance analysis for some time to help inform strategy and tactics at major championships.

Dr Scott Drawer, head of research and innovation at UK Sport, put it succinctly when he said: “Our work sets out to help our athletes and their coaches learn faster than their international opposition, and this is a great example of where increasing knowledge and understanding of the sport can give our athletes a real performance edge.”

We’ve now developed similar systems for a dozen other sports including taekwondo, gymnastics, skeleton bobsled, athletics, diving and swimming.  Sadly, I can’t yet tell you about these just yet as in sport, knowledge and understanding is where the real power lies; knowing how we are performing now and how even the smallest intervention can improve performance is the key.  Roll on 2012!

This article is based upon a blog written for the Engineer.

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About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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