How can sport drive engineering innovation
London, 4 September 2012.
By Simon Choppin, Agent and Postdoctoral researcher, Sheffield Hallam University.
This conference was a one-day seminar exploring the challenges and opportunities of sports engineering. In the past sports technology has followed the example of other more developed disciplines (aerospace for example) instead of driving innovation. This invitation-only event was a forum to discuss possible ways in which this current state of affairs can be reversed.
From a personal standpoint the highlight of this conference was the opportunity to meet esteemed colleagues from all around the world including some who I have a working relationship with through the International Sports Engineering Association. Due to the wide geographical spread (Dr Kim Blair from MIT in Massachusetts and Prof. Lloyd Smith from Washington State for example) this was a rare opportunity to discuss ideas and opportunities face to face. In addition to this a number of large engineering companies were present to discuss their own involvement with sport and sports technology. This included Vicon imaging, BAE systems and Össur of Iceland (manufacturers of the now famous ‘Cheetah’ prosthetic running blades used by Oscar Pistorius).
A particular focus of the seminar was the use of technology as a means of measurement and customisation. The role of technology in disability sport was highlighted, with a particular requirement for customisation due to individual needs between athletes.
Sensing and measurement technology has plummeted in price and size in recent years. This has resulted in a race to capture data – especially in sport related disciplines. The increased availability and reduced form factor of sensors has meant that sporting actions can be measured in ways which weren’t possible only a few years ago. It was recognised at this conference that while technology has leapt forward in this regard, the software which is used with the technology – or at least engineer’s knowledge of possible software solutions – hasn’t progressed sufficiently. As a result we are left in a situation where we have vast data sets but little idea of what to do with them. In this regards the successful combination of software and hardware (or an Engineer’s increased awareness of software) would contribute to driving innovation in sport technology and disability sport customisation. As an example of this, I was surprised that Össur still design prosthetics with a relatively ad-hoc approach for individual athletes (with regards to stiffness, size, profile of prosthetic etc.) while the custom treatment is no doubt effective, it struck me that sensors could record the gait profile, vibration of prosthetic etc. which all could be used to better customise the prosthetic to the user – if only we knew how to use the information the sensors record! With more research I’m confident these opportunities will be taken in time, but it struck me that there is a clear opportunities for engineers working with sensors, and software engineers working with large data sets could collaborate to create a ‘best practice’ approach.