Sensors could optimise British performance at 2012 Olympics

The UK Sport agency has unveiled a series of sensors that could help optimise British athletes’ performance at the London 2012 Olympics.

Researchers from Imperial College London, Loughborough and Queen Mary universities have been working for a year to develop devices for a variety of sports that will aid athletes and their coaches by measuring performance in the field.

As part of the four-year Elite Sport Performance Research in Training (ESPRIT) programme, the sensors will collect real-time information about athletes’ biomechanics, physiology and genetic blueprint that can be related to their actions when playing sport.

This will give teams a better understanding of how the body operates and allow them to more quickly adapt techniques and training routines so athletes can perform at their peak, both for London 2012 and in the future.

‘Most of our knowledge about performance is from lab tests on non-high-performance athletes but most of what we see in high-performance athletes is very different,’ UK Sport’s head of research and innovation, Dr Scott Drawer, told The Engineer.

‘We’re also trying to get away from the snapshot approach. Typically people would take a host of measures at the start of training and six weeks later. We want a continual stream of data from the athletes on a day-to-day basis, which gives us much more insight.’

The first prototype devices unveiled this month by UK Sport include:

  • small accelerometers built at Imperial for able-bodied athletes and wheelchair users to measure low-impact speeds;
  • ergometers developed by Loughborough that measure the work cyclists exert, replicating various forces and capabilities;
  • underwater sensors, also from Loughborough, to understand forces involved in swimming; and
  • devices embedded in the skin, built at Queen Mary, to measure oxygen and lactate in the body.

‘We can begin to understand some of the basic measures and metabolism and do that on a continuous basis,’ said Drawer.

‘We can also begin to see what the difference between upper and lower body functions are, which have particular implications in a sport such as rowing.’

The sensors will be further developed and trialled over the next year and then used with athletes from Team GB in the lead-up to London 2012.

The project has funding from the EPSRC and UK Sport to take it up to the Olympics, after which further public and private investment will be sought.

‘We’re trying to develop those platforms we can use immediately and roll out,’ said Drawer. ‘But as this develops over time we should have a platform that puts all that together. That’s a 20-year vision.’

The platform could be applied to other sectors, such as the military and industries operating in extreme environments such as oil and gas.

‘The applications in society for things such as reducing the healthcare bill could be massive,’ said Drawer. ‘I’m sure there would be massive interest from apparel companies through to health-related companies. You would expect the NHS and the military to be intrigued.’