The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics gave us a great summer of sport. It was a great summer for engineering technology, too, as the technicalities of equipment such as Team GB’s bicycles and aids such as Oscar Pistorius’s prosthetic limbs were highlighted and celebrated.
But the legacies of London 2012 tend to be spoken of in terms of infrastructure and couch potatoes cajoled into exercise. From the wider sports technology that was on show, the legacy is less clear.
Yet sports engineering experts who gathered for a conference during the Paralympics have highlighted a legacy of benefits from sport for the wider population. Delegates at the conference, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, claimed that sports technology, and the engineering that is developed with sport in mind, helps all of us.
Some of this benefit is down to the conditions that sport operates under. Kim Blair, president of the International Sports Engineering Association and a technology product developer at MIT, believes sports may offer the kind of experimental testbed for materials and products that was previously provided only by industries such as defence and aerospace. “In sports we often bump into things that other industries don’t,” says Blair, some of whose work can be seen in the trainer shoes originally developed for athletes and now ubiquitous.
There are reasons for this phenomenon. Sports people concerned to improve their own performance are happy to spend time and money pushing the technology limits. And there’s also often cash available from sponsors and product developers.
But the impact on others of such technologies is often tangential. Motion-capture technology, for instance, is used by top athletes and their coaches to analyse their technique in great detail. Tom Shannon, director of Vicon Motion Systems, points to a long tradition of using innovative camera systems in sports studies. “Athletes are interested in the minutiae of motion and how they can improve their performance,” he says. Camera systems taking pictures at hundreds of frames per second, and moving alongside the athletes as they run, can provide detailed information. He cites the example of a hurdler where motion analysis revealed that each hurdle was being cleared by some distance: modifying the hurdling technique to produce less lift and more forward motion meant less wasted effort and better times.
That kind of motion-capture technology is often augmented with biomarkers that are attached to the body, providing points that can be tracked, measured and then analysed. Similar technology has uses in films. Games developers use it too, and vision systems on production lines use something similar. But it also offers potential for use in biomedical engineering – to study the gait of people with chronic conditions, for instance.
Essentially, what sports facilitate is the introduction of measurement into areas that have been difficult to quantify before. Professor Kamiar Aminian, from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s laboratory of movement analysis and measurement, is working on systems that use a variety of sensors to measure movement and force.
Body-worn sensors score over camera systems particularly in “difficult” environments, such as under water, analysing swimmers’ strokes, where the cameras tend to be diverted by reflections and bubbles. Another application has been to monitor the fitness levels needed by soccer referees: measuring the types of movement, intensity, direction and pattern.
In the past, Aminian says, there was a disconnect between the fixed tests carried out in the laboratory and what happened in the real world. But now, systems with miniaturised sensors and wireless communications enable tests to be carried out at the same time as normal – or elite sporting – activities.
At Lausanne, this kind of work has impacts in two directions. First, it helps the sports themselves. Aminian cites studies on ski-ing: inertial sensors fitted to a ski jumper and recently linked to a GPS have led to a method to determine safer angles for ski-jump courses, and to data that can be input into the design of different types of ski to reduce injuries and accidents.
But alongside the sports work, the researchers at Lausanne have also been working with local healthcare providers. They have been monitoring and measuring a sample of 1,800 people as part of a programme to help those with walking difficulties. Inertial sensors attached to shoes measure factors such as stride length, velocity and clearance, to get a reference against which those with walking difficulties can then be assessed.