Sense of speed

Top sprinters from the UK hoping to compete in the 2012 Olympics are to get a head start thanks to a project that will use wireless sensing technology to analyse their performance.

The project brings together heavyweights such as GlaxoSmithKline and Sun Microsystems with Cambridge University and UCL as part of a four-year initiative to look at how sensing can be used to improve the performance of the nation’s elite sprinters.

Dr Stephen Hailes, from UCL’s Computer Science department is leading the project and hopes that using accurate sensing technologies could both help improve a sprinter’s performance and provide accurate feedback for coaches.

‘We need sensing systems that fit the purpose for which we need them,’ he said. ‘There are already systems that use accelerometers and gyroscopes which are very good indeed but the trouble is that they are far too big. We want something that an athlete can wear without being aware of it. Current systems are too large and not well interfaced for wireless networking.’

Existing technologies used by coaches often involve the use of video motion capture but this is often disruptive to training and the information returned is difficult to accurately interpret. Hailes’ team hopes to develop sensors light enough to wear which can provide information on limb position, orientation, muscular function and physiological status, all in real-time.

According to Hailes there has been relatively little work until now on the biomechanical side of sprinting. The discipline is particularly difficult to analyse on a treadmill, due to the speed of the athletes and it is impractical to replicate the start. There will be a number of technical challenges which the team will have to overcome.

One possible problem will be how to attach the individual sensors to the athletes in a uniform way so that the data is as accurate as possible. Even more challenging will be how to effectively and quickly interpret the data as it is received.

‘Signal processing will be the toughest part,’ said Hailes. ‘We will have to extract meaning from that data in a way coaches and the athletes can use, which is difficult as it is often noisy and imprecise.’

If it is possible to process the data fast enough then the system will be able to provide real-time feedback to the athlete and coach. This could involve sounds that indicate when the sprinter’s foot should be striking the track as well as overlaying sensor data on video imagery to provide an easy-to-understand product for coaches.

The team is working with optical motion analysis experts from Vicon and Codamotion to develop system standards, and the National Indoor Athletics Centre in Cardiff.

‘We hope we can get a solid basic understanding of what makes good sprinters by applying technology and engineering to improve performance,’ said Hailes.