on November 13th, 2011

I must confess that I was always faintly disparaging of motor sport as a ‘real’ sport but driving with forces of more than 4.5g, heart rates exceeding 180 beats per minute, dehydration an ongoing threat and gigantic leaps in blood pressure (~50%) must surely mean that as a rally driver you have to be superbly fit. Coupled with the ongoing threat to your life (remember these horrific crashes over the past few weeks) and the need to be utterly focussed on your driving and the variation between lap times of sometimes less than a tenth of a second. Hence the growth of technology providing an array of wireless-based instrumentation to track not only the car’s engine, suspension, but also the driver’s physical condition.

This instrumentation technology has been steadily migrating across all sports ranging from sailing, running, swimming, rugby, football, cycling and even the hallowed grounds of cricket. Particularly sophisticated systems are used in sailing to track rudder movements, wind speed, strain of sails and motion. The rules can be rather restrictive of allowing the crews to monitor their performance in real time; but can add significantly to the performance.

Instrumentation Galore
Instrumentation for sports(wo)men ranges from pulse monitors, blood pressure, surface temperature to tracking physical position. Measuring core body temperature accurately can still be tricky; as the optimal spot is still one’s rectum, which is not particularly practical for an athlete running a marathon.

Combine the sensors in a wearable shirt
The current breaking idea is to combine all these sensors into a wearable smart shirt which combines all the sensors (heart rate, blood oxygen level, respiration and temperature) from the individual. This data is then sent out via an encrypted wireless message (so that competing coaches can’t access this valuable information).

The ongoing challenge is to interpret this data effectively and to build up metrics of stamina, fatigue and look for areas where the sportswoman may be wasting her energy. Naturally, humans can’t be treated like machines and a soaring heart rate doesn’t mean that they won’t perform well. But the proper application of this technology may even detect life or health threatening states of an athlete in an extreme sport. And also help teams in improving their strategies with detailed data (what is the exact sequence of steps to score a goal).

Naturally, there will be those who feel that this technology will give an unfair advantage to the team with the superior technology and this is a consideration to be assessed.

Apply this technology to your field
So, my suggestion to you, good friends is to apply this new breaking technology in your areas of expertise. For example, monitoring one’s engineering team out on site working in a particularly hot environment in the Great Sandy Desert or deep underground or in freezing Artic-like conditions on an oil rig. Surely there is merit in applying this technology in the engineering workplace?

To those of you that are still somewhat doubtful about taking sport so seriously, may I quote Bill Shankly: Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.

Thanks to The Economist, Brian Kaplan, Adrian Cast and Mike Martin for some interesting comments on this great new field of engineering endeavour.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve


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