Sport regulators ‘must work more closely with engineers’

A report has urged sports regulators to work more closely with engineers to prepare for the next wave of technological advances.

Sports Engineering: An Unfair Advantage? published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) claims advances in nanotechnology, 3D printing and biomedical engineering are set to bring about a new wave of technology in sport.

To prepare for these developments and counter accusations of ‘technology doping’, the report calls for sporting regulators to predict the consequences new technologies can have on sport and to work more closely with engineers.

Philippa Oldham, lead report author and head of manufacturing at IMechE, said: ‘Most sport regulators are not yet encouraging or involving engineers when they are making the rules and developing their regulations.’

A recent example of regulators failing to work with companies developing new sporting technology is the international swimming body, FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), banning Speedo’s LZR racer suit, which helped swimmers break three world records within a week of its launch and many more after — several of which still stand today and are unlikely to be broken for decades, according to some critics.

Traditionally there has been an emphasis on developing equipment, such as the Speedo swimsuit, to enhance an athlete’s performance in a competition. However, there is an increasing amount of technology being developed that can be used to analyse an athlete’s performance in the build-up to a competition.

With the help of £2m funding from the EPSRC and UK Sport, Loughborough University researchers have developed an analysis system that is able to wirelessly track a swimmer’s movement through the water.

Key to the system is a black box the size of a pack of cigarettes containing accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensing technologies that sits in a ridge on a swimmer’s lower back.

It generates comprehensive data on the swimmer’s body position, speed and acceleration and enables coaches to provide feedback and advice that is more objective than previously possible. The data is accessed via a laptop and can be used to suggest alterations to the swimmer’s technique at the poolside during training.

‘It’s difficult to transmit data through the water because water tends to want to absorb radio frequency,’ said Paul Conway, project leader and director of the Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Research Centre at Loughborough University. ‘The water tends to attenuate the signal and shift its frequency and you lose a lot of the energy in the transmission.’

The team overcame this problem by optimising the frequency and the antenna design of the device and linking it to intelligent software that can collect data even when the wireless signal breaks down with the help of video cameras and pressure pads at each end of the pool. The exact details of how data is transmitted through the water are sensitive at this moment in time while the team attempts to patent the technology.

Several athletes representing Team GB in this summer’s London Olympics have used the technology in the lead up to the games.

Conway does not believe that the system causes any alteration to a swimmer’s performance. ‘They wear an elastic belt around the waist where not much happens as it’s a fixed part of the swimmer’s body,’ said Conway.

Meanwhile, Steve Haake, director of sports engineering research at Sheffield Hallam University, told The Engineer that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle comes in as soon as technology is attached to an athlete. ‘If you attach something to their back it’s going to change the way they swim so you’re not measuring the thing you thought you were measuring,’ he explained.

‘The dilemma of the sports engineer is that we want to prove that the things we do are fantastic and affect performance immensely,’ Haake added. ‘But we also want to prove that it doesn’t make too much of a difference because if it makes too much of a difference then it gets banned.’