The Best Designs in Sports Technology

There’s a player down, and trainers at the University of New Hampshire are working feverishly in front of banks of cameras to remove his pads and helmets without jarring his neck.

One unscrews the face mask to get access to the player’s airway; another pulls a cord that separates his shoulder pads. Cervical spine damage is one of the scariest injuries in football, causing paralysis or worse, and often the greatest harm occurs after the hit.

But this field isn’t made of grass or Astroturf. It’s a worn blue carpet on the floor of the Applied Biomechanics Lab of the Department of Kinesiology. The eight wall-mounted cameras are part of a motion-analysis system used to check for head and neck movement. And the player is an able-bodied volunteer.

The lab tests advances in equipment, such as removable face masks, that is gradually helping to reduce serious head and spinal injuries in football. It’s an example of the spiraling amount of research going into new technology for sports—to reduce injuries, improve performance, and enhance the experience of watching everything from football to figure skating.

Watch a video highlighting the Football Equipment Study at UNH

“It’s kind of nice to see the new designs of the helmets and the face masks, knowing our research helped to do that,” says Erik Swartz, who runs the lab at the University of New Hampshire and whose doctorate is in biomechanics.

Like many researchers at this intersection of science and sports, Swartz is a former athlete who played soccer and rugby in high school and college. But it’s not just frustrated athletes who are fueling the burgeoning field. It’s the promise of financial support and potential profit from a global, multibillion-dollar industry.

“This is where you get the funding,” says Alan Smeaton, deputy director of Clarity lab at Dublin City University in Ireland. The Lab develops computer-guided cameras for ESPN that can follow split-second movements on a tennis court and, for Irish sports leagues, vests that measure breathing and patches that detect the level of sodium in sweat.

“The immediate deployment of these kinds of things is at the high end, where even slightly better performance means the difference between competing in the Olympics or not,” Smeaton says. “Then they trickle down into the mass market.” Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour all are interested in the lab’s wearable sensor technology, Smeaton says.

The world’s most recognizable example of science in sports may be the yellow first-down line created for football telecasts by Chicago-based Sportvision, whose PITCHf/x now tracks the velocity and placement of every pitch in baseball, and which has developed graphics that can show the hard-to-gauge positions of racing yachts, and, for NASCAR, a GPS-powered program that lets viewers follow 43 cars at once.

“A lot of engineers have pet interests that motivate them, and hard problems to solve,” says Steve Zoppi, the company’s chief technology officer. “And this field is full of extremely hard problems to solve.”

It’s also much easier to apply the results. It will take at least 10 years for the Status and Motion Activated Radiofrequency, or SMART, tags developed by Bob Kauffman at the University of Dayton Research Institute, to be approved for their intended use in airplanes to warn mechanics if a clamp breaks or wires brush against a fuel tank or hydraulic line in flight.

So Kauffman, a former high school and college football and rugby player, is putting them in football helmets to test for severe hits that can cause concussions. Coaches can scan the tags to see if their young players are making dangerous, head-first tackles—then correct their form.

Read related article: Touchdown Technology: Tackling Injury Prevention with New Helmet Design

“You always see these kids going at it head first,” Kauffman says. “So when I started looking for applications, between that and my sports background, I thought we could put these RFIDs in their helmets.”

He hopes to field a prototype by next season.

“People are willing to spend all kinds of money on sports,” Kauffman says. “If I was to put these tags on the market, I imagine they’d sell instantly. If I put them on the aviation market, it would take years.”

Jim Richards took a different route to his work with figure skaters: His Human Performance Lab at the University of Delaware was built onto the back of the campus ice rink, which researchers had to walk across to use the rest room.

“You can’t help but stop and look at a figure-skating boot and think, holy cow, is this an antique,” Richards says, a professor of kinesiology and applied physiology.

With money from U.S. Figure Skating, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and skate manufacturers, Richards and his team are working on new skate designs and have put 10 high-speed cameras over the ice to record skaters wearing anatomical markers, whose performance is analyzed by a computer in 3-D.

“This is the best job ever,” says Sportvision’s Zoppi. “It’s very hard work, it’s very challenging, but it’s innovation and invention at its best. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Photo: Rock Dennis tackles Taylor Wardlow by John McStravick on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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