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'Secret' racing wheelchair could boost athletes' performance

Britain’s Paralympic athletes could have access to a secret new racing wheelchair to give them an edge at next year’s world championships.

Engineers from BAE Systems have been helping UK wheelchair manufacturer Draft and Dimitris Katsanis, the designer who worked on Team GB’s medal-winning track bikes, to develop a new wind-tunnel-tested wheelchair with a carbon-fibre chassis.

Carbon fibre is often used in racing wheelchair wheels but it is more unusual for the material to be used in the frame, partly due to the cost it adds to the chairs, which must be commercially available for use in the Paralympics.

However, Draft’s co-founder and director Dan Chambers, who is due to receive an award from the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, said the new carbon-fibre chassis was six times stiffer than a conventional aluminium one and so reduced drag.

‘The tests we did on the aluminium chassis I make showed that while the athletes were pushing, they could actually distort the chassis enough to cause significant drag by misaligning the back wheels when they pushed on them,’ he told The Engineer.

Draft has also improved the stiffness of the carbon-fibre wheels, he added. ‘Most of the carbon-fibre wheels people have used so far are simply adapted bike wheels.

‘And they’re fine if they’re kept loaded vertically but obviously in a racing wheelchair they’re angled at 12° from vertical, and then also they’re being hit from the side by the athletes so the whole thing does really flex a lot.’

The designers worked with computational fluid dynamics company TotalSim to refine the chair, before testing it at BAE’s wind-tunnel facilities in Warton, Lancashire, where they were able to reduce its drag by around 10 per cent.

This testing also allowed BAE’s engineers to help improve the positioning of the athletes in the chair, cutting drag by a further 10 per cent.

‘We looked at the chair from front to back, top to bottom, so we looked at rolling resistance, we looked at aerodynamics,’ said BAE’s project leader, Kelvin Davies, who described the chair as revolutionary and top secret. ‘The chair by itself is fine but it’s only when you put an athlete in it that you can look at the whole system.’

The wheelchair was developed as part of a partnership between BAE and UK Sport, which saw the engineering company donate £1.5m-worth of its services to the development of sporting technology ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics.

The prototype chair was finished earlier this year but still needed testing by athletes so wasn’t ready in time for the London 2012 games.

However, Chambers said it would be available for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and hopefully for next year’s International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships.

He added that although the chairs would be commercially available to comply with Paralympic rules, they would likely be very expensive. ‘They’re hand-made in Derbyshire; they’re not mass-produced,’ he said.

On Thursday, Chambers will receive the Sir Frank Whittle Medal — the engineering prize for outstanding and sustained achievement — from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is holding two weeks of events focusing on innovation and engineering in disability sport.

Readers' comments (12)

  • The whole point of competitive sports, able, or disabled, is for one person to excel over another, either by being naturally better or by harder, more effective training. Using technology only affordable by a select few would skew results to the extent that the games as a whole become a farce. All technology used MUST be common to all athletes.

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  • I agree. 'Sport' of this nature has already become a farce and possibly an obscenity since changing from amateur to professional. It is now completely spoiled by sponsorship and the interests of big business.

    I cannot see why in these cases the principle of 'One Design' Classes - as used by sailing - cannot be applied successfully, so that everyone has use of the exact same device and only the athlete is different. If that device is a low cost item, then so be it. That would keep the costs down to an affordable level for a much wider range of competitors to be able to enter.

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  • Any sport that uses a mechanical device has that MD subject to tweaking. The Olympic bicycles are hardly 'off-the-shelf' items. Bobsleds are super high tech. Swim suits are high tech, shoes are optimised for best results etc. etc.
    So why should paralympic wheelchairs be any different?

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  • Olympic rules dictate that all equipment must be commercially available, so the bicycles are, in fact, 'off the shelf'. It's a very expensive shelf, though.

  • PeterB - If the sailing sports outlawed 'pumping' of sails I would agree with you, but at present only the strongest biggest sailors will win.

    Michael - All hope of fair and equitable results is therefore lost. Maybe we have to go back to the original Greek principle of all athletes competing naked and barefoot.

    I would also argue there is no place in the olympics for any sport that requires a decision by a judge or panel of judges to produce a winner. All winners should be based entirely on their objectively measurable performance.

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  • So Formula 1 is not a sport then JohnK? I think you are wrong there. Sport is defined by its rules. Naked, barefoot runners - fine, if thats what the rules say. If the rules say wheel chairs are allowed then at least let Britain make the best ones. Maybe some of the technology or ideas will filter down into mass-production models for the man in the street to use.

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  • Using technology affordable to all is a laudable ideal but unlikely to happen if for no other reason than the manufacurers would be unhappy with a product that can't be developed because it is a frozen design. The modern racing bicycle is very similar to a Starley 'Safety' but I doubt people would be keen on using those in the Olympics, Grand Tours etc..
    Similarly I'm sure that Mr Pistorious might be a bit unhappy that he has to exchange his carbon fibre blades for more economic plywood ones.
    Those who have followed the success of the Team GB cycling squad and the SKY team will be aware that the bike technology, while a part, is not the primary reason for their performance. The secret is to improve everything - maybe we can learn something from this...

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  • Peter Melling - define your meaning of 'sport'. I define it as testing the athletic ability of one person against others. Therefore motor racing is not a sport. It's a race between driver (or pit team?) Controlled cars. A race is not necessarily a sport. Darts, snooker, crossword puzzle solving, chess, bridge, quiz competitions etc are clearly not sports but tests of intellectual or physical skill and not testing athletic ability.
    As for 'laudable ideals'... Nick, you are consigning the Olympics to history in a few years time as only the richest countries will bother competing. Besides, to effectively say the Olympics is the only 'testing ground' for new technology is laughable. I have a disabled friend and he constantly drives the adoption of new technology by simple demand, not some 4-yearly games. I seem to recall carbon fibre 'blades' were developed firstly as a device (pogo stick style gimmick?) for able bodied people and then adopted by the manufacturers of prosthetic devices for, mainly, disabled people.
    Cycling can easily adopt the latest technology by making the same bikes available to all racers. The cyclists draw a ticket for the bike they will use in each event which makes it a wholly equal competition. Best cyclist wins, not the best bike.
    Simple rules for equal competition will keep the Olympics alive.
    Imagine laser guided darts, chip controlled chess pieces, laser sighting on snooker cues. This is what you are endorsing.

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  • JohnK, please read and think before deriding. I did not say that the Olympics are the only testing ground, far from it. Neither am I endorsing the use of technology to supplant the skill, physical ability & experience of the athlete. The emphasis on technology you are suggesting is highly derisive to those who are using it and shows a remarkable lack of understanding of how much advantage they are getting.

    The problem is that in all modern sporting competition, technology is used where possible to gain advantage whether it be a swimming costume, running shoes, a compound bow, a tennis racquet, a bicycle et al. This isn't removing the need for the athleticism of the competitor but making their equipment as good as possible. No laser guided arrows but a stable and reliable bow. To put it another way, the vast majority of racing cyclists still wouldn't be able to competitively ride the Tour de France on Bradley Wiggins' bike, but he would likely have still won on the sort of bike a serious amateur racer has.

    While it would be nice for all to use the same off the shelf piece of equipment, who pays for it? Manufacturers pay for the development by the sales generated in part by the publicity generated by the athletes using their equipment but if all are using the same equipment there is
    no brand linkage, no market, no development.

    Going back to the original story, it seems that the advantages from the redesign of the racing wheelchairs might possibly be from overcoming current design flaws rather than the need for technology. Just because everyone does something in a certain way doesn't mean that it is the best solution. As engineers we should be aware of this but alas from years of experience we generally aren't.
    There is also the problem of quoted improvements, a 10% reduction in drag sounds impressive but if it is only for something that accounts for 1% of the total it is much less so.

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  • Nick.
    It is clear we agree on the major point that technology should be encouraged wherever and whenever possible to actively enable or assist improvements in quality of life, able or disabled.

    Your response above, and I have read it several times, seems to go full circle and end up largely agreeing with me. Maybe i'm missing something; not unusual as I'm not a genius, but I do try and apply common sense, something most Governments seem to lack.

    Your 3rd para, re manufacturers costs for R&D. Manufacturers would not naturally, driven by 'normal' market forces, make something so exorbitantly expensive that it is bought only by a privileged few. If they do, then it is rare for the 'average' person to be able to afford them (Aston Martin et al). They only make this elitist equipment because of events like the Olympics, not because there is a huge market for them.

    And... your point about swimsuits. The advanced material you mention has been outlawed!

    Nor did I mention Archery, but Darts, the 'pub' game. Laser guidance coupled to steerable flights mayhap? Bullets now use it so why not darts?. Archery already uses the equivalent of Telescopic sights. A long way from the stalwart Longbowmen of old.

    As an aside, where are the crossbow competitions? Too much technology maybe.

    Finally, I apologise for using 'laughable'. In hindsight it was not the meaning I was searching for. 'Limiting' may be nearer.

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  • In the cycling world they do indeed make bikes for the privileged few although they are normally just for the sponsored team riders. These are the pinnacle of the range with a whole load at varying price ranges below.
    So a replica of Brad's Tour de France bike will set you back £8-10k, a decent race bike about £2.5k and so on down to a £2-300 starter.
    They don't sell many of the top end but there are quite a few in the levels just below.
    If you look at it in the terms of the cost of transport to international events or even a season of travelling throughout the UK, the bikes aren't actually that expensive...

    My point about the technology was that it is more laser sighting than laser guidance - the archer still has to be able to hit the target, the arrow won't help. And the laminated bows of the Mongols were also a long way from the logbows of old.

    I think that removing technology from competitive sports would be counter-productive though Ancient Greek beach volleyball would definitely draw the punters - I'll get my coat.

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