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Everyone's a winner: discussion of the games legacy sometimes overlooks sports engineering. Yet this area provides a testbed for innovation that could benefit us all.

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 Federale 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.

These systems open up other possibilities. One aim, says Aminian, might be to incorporate sensors into shoes that would adjust the inclination of the foot at each step to improve balance, and to do it automatically so it adjusts for an individual in reaction to changes in their walking and the kinds of terrain they are covering.

This work highlights one of the difficulties of extrapolating sports engineering into wider applications: much of the work that's done with elite sports people is tailored to the individual, and moving that across into ideas that can be applied to lots of people is difficult. Professor Wendy Tindale, scientific director of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, says there is frustration among people with long-term conditions at the slow speed with which technologies developed with elite athletes is being translated into ideas that can be applied more widely. Tindale sees promise, though, in technologies such as biomedical modelling, in which "virtual" people are used to design systems that can then be tailored to the individual.

Personalisation and customisation are important in using ideas from sports into wider applications. Just as sports people have individual needs to enhance their performance, so too does everyone else.

In fact, Dr Jon Wheat from Sheffield Hallam University challenges the notion that in movement analysis and therapy there is a "correct" way to do things. Wheat has been adapting the Kinect motion control technology used in games simulators for potential application in clinical functions such as gait analysis, and the work has involved studying how individuals achieve certain movements.

He believes the idea that there are "common optimal movement patterns" is not true in sports, where different athletes have individual techniques for achieving similar performance, and not true either in the more commonplace activities that are carried out by other people.

Individual performance, he says, is more governed by a "theory of constraints" where the constraining factors are the task that is being undertaken, the environment in which it is done and the person who is doing it. There is no "right" way to walk that applies uniformly to everyone. Even if there is a right way for an individual, it will still vary depending on the context.

One area where personalisation has already taken hold is a sector that spans sports and wider biomedical engineering: prosthetics. Global companies such as British business Blatchford and German firm Otto Bock have been using engineering design technologies to innovate in two areas: the design of the prosthetic devices themselves and the interfaces between the prostheses and the body.


Athletes, says Blatchford technical director Dr Saeed Zahedi, encourage engineers to push the boundaries: "Athletes are the most demanding of customers in terms of what they want their new limbs to do." That demand has stimulated research into the basic biomechanics of the leg and foot combination and resulted in prosthetic designs that use new materials and structures to give a performance that's more like what the rest of the body is "expecting" and is designed for.

Kevin Harney, Otto Bock's president and chief executive officer for Asia Pacific, says that much current work is on interfaces, specifically between the remaining body of the athlete and the prosthetic device but also between the athlete and the external environment. As the different classes of athletic events in the Paralympics indicate, there is a lot of variation in terms of the type of prosthetic needed, which will depend on the remaining limb that it is to be attached to and also the kind of activity that will be done.

The question that lies behind all this work is how to get maximum function out of the muscle that remains for the tasks that are wanted. There is no shortage of new ideas, but they need testing. And sport, in which individuals have a continuous determination to improve performance and to test new ideas to extremes, has a big role to play.
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Title Annotation:DESIGN
Author:Lucas, Richard
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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