EPSRC to fund leading-edge body sensors, computer models and SESAME technologies for sporting achievements

York 13 September 2007The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) celebrated the overall theme "Energy and Human Progress" at the BA - British Association for the Advancement of Science - Festival of Science, hosted by the University of York and the City of York, September 9-15, 2007, with a series of presentations on EPSRC-funded IT technologies that are being developed to the benefit of sports and athletes. As such, the Sensing for Sport and Managed Exercise (SESAME) project is developing innovative video and body sensor technologies designed to aid the training of both novice and elite athletes. In addition, a revolutionary unobtrusive sensor that collects and immediately transmits data from the human body could boost British sporting success in future. And, last but not least, computer models now under development could enhance the design of sports equipment to help people of all abilities realise their sporting potential.

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Groundbreaking research now under way in the United Kingdom could help leading athletics coaches deliver outstanding results in the years ahead. The aim is to combine these technologies into a unique, integrated computer system that substantially increases the quantity and variety of data available to coaches during training sessions. The SESAME project has the potential to significantly improve future British medal prospects in events such as sprinting, long jump and pole vault, for example.

A high speed camera automatically tracks an athlete during a training session. Courtesy of Julien Fauqueur.

"Many sports depend on correct technique to optimise athlete performance and reduce injury risk", stated Dr. Robert Harle of the University of Cambridge, who delivered the EPSRC/BA Festival of Science presentation on 13 September. "So there's significant value in developing technologies which can assist the coaching process by providing near-instantaneous feedback on an athlete's technique during a training session itself."

The naked eye has long been the tool of choice for athletics coaches, perhaps supplemented by a single fixed video camera producing pictures of limited value. These video limitations arise because the coach has to use the camera either to provide useful close-up pictures of a running athlete but which only cover one or two strides, or to generate longer-range shots which show more strides but make it harder to see the athlete's technique in the necessary detail.

SESAME is therefore developing a leading-edge data recording and analysis system that will greatly increase the amount of useful information available to a coach. The system will produce simultaneous shots from multiple video cameras located in different positions that can autonomously track a moving athlete and then transmit pictures to the coach for near-instant, slow motion replay. This will require significant technical innovation as no video system currently available can cost-effectively deal with this amount and variety of data.

In addition, the project is developing on-body sensors that will use small, low-power electronics which exploit recent advances in wireless communications to collect data about arm angle, knee lift, body lean etc. This data will be transmitted straight to the coach and synchronised to the video streams to permit extensive data mining and analysis. Identifying the optimum means of presenting this synchronised information to the coach is a key SESAME objective.

An on-athlete sensor package that collects data and transmits it wireless to the trackside. Courtesy of Julien Fauqueur.

Crucially, this new system will enable the coach to give an athlete, during the short time when they are walking back to their mark, immediate feedback and advice on improving their technique - with no interruption to training schedules. For example, they could highlight the need for a sprinter to increase or decrease their stride length or knee lift in order to achieve maximum running speed, or for a jumper not to look down during take-off.

Achieving all the project's goals will require wide-ranging multi-disciplinary expertise, from computer science and engineering to biomechanics and medical science. A consortium has been assembled to deliver the cutting-edge capabilities needed. The partners are University College London, the Royal Veterinary College, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff as well as the University of Cambridge. Technology developed by the project is beginning to be trialled, with a view to availability within around 3 years.

"Our aim is to use technology to help coaches, not replace them", Robert Harle commented. "A key aspect of SESAME is to listen to coaches and understand their needs. Their input could help ensure that we develop technology tools which make a real impact on achievement by British athletes in the future."

The 4-year SESAME initiative is due to run until 2010 and received EPSRC funding of GBP 2.910.272. Developing supporting IT and communication capabilities - e.g. technologies that can collect, process and transmit sensor data, and a data logging/storage system that can ensure the safety and security of confidential information which can be treated as a medical record - is another core aim of SESAME.

The second EPSRC funding opportunity concerns a leading-edge body sensor that could help produce sporting champions. Cufflink-sized and clipped behind the wearer's ear, the sensor is unique in two key respects. First, it does not hinder performance, yet can gather unprecedentedly wide-ranging and useful data about posture, stride length, step frequency, acceleration, response to shock waves travelling through the body etc.

Second, when worn by an athlete during training, it can transmit the information for immediate visual display on a handheld device or laptop used by their coach at the trackside. The coach can then harness the data to shape the on-the-spot advice and instruction they give the athlete regarding technique. By instantly adding to the value of every training session, the sensor can therefore deliver better sporting performance.

The sensor clips behind the wearer's ear.

Currently under development at Imperial College London with funding from the EPSRC and the Government's Technology Programme, the new sensor and its potential contribution not just to sport but also to wider health care was outlined by Professor Guang Zhong Yang at the BA Festival of Science in York.

"The sensor we're working on is inspired by the semicircular canals of the inner ear, which play a key role in controlling our motion and balance", stated Professor Guang Zhong Yang, who is leading the project and is a world-renowned pioneer in the field of Body Sensor Networks (BSN). His multi-disciplinary project team is utilising a range of expertise, including computer science, electronics, engineering and biomechanics. Biomechanics is the study of body movements and the forces acting on the body during activity.

Crucially, the new sensor does not cause discomfort and, because it is worn behind the ear, does not adversely affect aerodynamics. The data it generates therefore provides an authentic and realistic indication of how the wearer's body would behave if performing without the sensor. This makes the information extremely valuable.

By contrast, body sensors currently available are cumbersome to wear and so affect technique and performance, making the information they produce less useful. Moreover, their data cannot be displayed in real time, but requires processing before being viewed after the training session. "Having biomechanical data available there and then, during a training session, can make the whole process of improving sporting technique much quicker and easier", stated Professor Yang.

The new sensor is now undergoing trials with elite British athletes, with a view to entering widespread use within 12-18 months initially for sprinters but eventually for rowers and other athletes.

Ear to the ground - data collected by the new sensor will translate directly into improved athletics performance.

The sensor could also have significant potential for use in monitoring patients suffering from a range of injuries and illnesses, and even in helping to preserve good health and to promote quality of life generally. It has scope, for example, to be used to monitor patients with degenerative arthritis or neurological gait abnormalities, as well as those who have undergone orthopaedic surgery. In the field of human/computer interfacing, the device could also make a unique contribution to translating body movement and physical exercise into computer games as well as into virtual reality-based sports training.

Professor Yang commented: "I believe it's really important to ensure that sports-related research like ours will have a genuine legacy in wider fields and a positive impact on society at large." The project "Sports Body Sensor Networks (Sports-BSN)" will last 18 months and receive EPSRC funding of nearly GBP 163.000.

EPSRC is also showing a lot of interest in computer models that help raise the bar for sporting achievement. The models, more sophisticated and more specialised than others previously used in sports equipment design, produce unprecedentedly realistic simulations of how potential ball designs, for instance, will actually behave when in use.

This data can then be harnessed by sports equipment design teams to ensure that the final products they develop behave - e.g. bounce and spin - as required and, above all, with more consistency than ever before. This is vital if sportsmen and women are to optimise their skills, apply them with confidence and maximise their achievement.

The capabilities of these ground-breaking computer models, which are being developed at Loughborough University by a team from the Sports Technology Research Group, was described at the BA Festival of Science by Dr. Andy Harland.

"The UK is at the forefront of sports-related engineering", stated Dr. Andy Harland, who leads the team. "Our computer models can provide invaluable technical input to the sports equipment design process. For example, by enabling the real-world behaviour of different design options to be simulated with extreme accuracy, they can reduce the need to manufacture expensive prototypes and cut the time required to get improved equipment from the drawing-board to the shops."

The basis of the models is provided by commercially available, industry-leading Abaqus software. Developed by Simulia, Abaqus is a suite of non-linear finite element analysis (FEA) computer programmes designed for use in tackling a wide range of mechanical, structural, civil, biomedical and other engineering challenges. The team takes this software and then, by developing and adding complex algorithms, enhances its ability to simulate mathematically the exact characteristics of a particular piece of sports equipment, of different playing surfaces and so on. The model can then show exactly what will happen when a ball, for instance, has a specified amount of force or spin applied to it, and how it will bounce and roll.

Adding a kick to research - this specially designed kicking robot is used to test the computer models' accuracy.

The underlying expertise has been developed with funding from the EPSRC. Further funding targeted at specific objectives has been provided by adidas, the global sports equipment manufacturer. Key input has already been made to the design of the adidas +Teamgeist football used in last year's World Cup in Germany. As well as other football projects, Dr. Andy Harland's team is currently working on models that will aid the design of next-generation running shoes which reduce the risk of injury.

The capabilities being developed could also allow designers to tune sports equipment more closely to the needs of the user, leading to increased participation in sport and therefore important health benefits across the population.

"There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that children and some adults are deterred from taking part in sport by ill fitting or badly designed equipment", Dr. Andy Harland commented. "It's ironic that a largely sedentary activity like developing computer models can make a real contribution to the quality of sporting performance and the enjoyment millions of people derive from physical activity."

EPSRC funding has been provided under the auspices of Loughborough University's Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (IMRC), a 5-year initiative which began in 2006 and is receiving EPSRC funding of nearly GBP 18 million. The overall aim of the IMRC is to undertake a wide variety of work in the fields of manufacturing, construction and product design.

To develop computer models of the necessary sophistication, Dr. Andy Harland and his team are harnessing a wide range of skills available at Loughborough University, including mechanical engineering, computer science, electronics, civil engineering and even psychology - the issue of how users perceive sports equipment is a hugely important one.

EPSRC is the United Kingdom's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests around GBP 740 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the United Kingdom and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.


Leslie Versweyveld

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