Royal Academy of Engineering and UK Science and Innovation Network highlight the links between sporting excellence and innovative engineering

Olympians and Paralympians in the UK's summer of sport have been breaking records and setting personal bests in event after event - and the focus in many cases has been on the engineering and science that has helped them to perform.

But does the technology used in sports engineering have wider application? Can it drive engineering innovation in areas such as public healthcare, for example? Or is it just there for an athletic elite?

Examples of broader benefits such as new measurement technologies, different construction techniques for stadia and improved prosthetics and wheelchairs were cited at a Royal Academy of Engineering conference on sports engineering held on 4 September as part of a fortnight of Academy events coinciding with the Paralympic Games in London. The conference was held in partnership with the UK Science and Innovation Office of the Paris Embassy, with support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Healthtech and Medicines Knowledge Transfer Network, and UK Trade & Investment.

The benefits of sports engineering are not just in terms of product innovations. Developments in sports equipment encourage new processes and different thinking. Sport often provides a fast route to innovation of all kinds because of the drive for fast success and because of the relative freedom from regulation compared with, for instance, the healthcare sector.

Sport also generates huge public interest in science and engineering. The great feats of Team GB, especially in the Paralympics, provide opportunities for engineers to tell positive stories of human interest about how their ideas have transformed lives and helped achievements.

The Academy conference attracted an international audience of sports engineers and scientists and related professionals, with innovators and practitioners represented among the speakers and the attendees. The conference divided its examination of innovation into three sessions: how sport helps the Making of equipment; how measuring technology is enhanced through the needs of sport; and how the Designing of sports equipment leads to new thinking across engineering design as a whole.

Download the report from the conference (586.72 KB)

Making

Prosthetic limbs of the kind used by the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games are the clearest indicators from London 2012 of the engineering developments of recent years. They were the main topic of discussion in the Making session of the conference.

Sport has provided the ‘extreme’ examples that have driven the investigation of innovative designs, structures and materials for replacement limbs. The key factors in prosthetics, said Dr Saeed Zahedi, Technical Director of Blatchford, the leading UK company in this business, are that amputees need the confidence that they can stand, walk and run - and athletes are the most demanding of customers in terms of what they want their new limbs to do. So they encourage engineers to push the boundaries; to innovate.

Kevin Harney, President and CEO Asia Pacific of the prosthetics company Otto Bock, said that much of the work in this area is about interfaces: between the body of the athlete and the device, and between the athlete and the external environment. The drive for performance from athletes has accelerated the testing of new materials and configurations to the benefit of non-athlete amputees.

A further trend identified by Dr Thorvaldur Ingvarsson, Executive ViceRpresident for research and development at the Össur company, is towards personalisation. He believes that this will benefit for wider healthcare, since every individual is different and their needs are different too.

Extending the customisation of prosthetics is one of the challenges for the future, which mirrors trends in other parts of engineering. However, Kelvin Davies, who leads BAE Systems' technology partnership project with UK Sport, saw a lot of other cross-over points between the engineering of sports devices and that of BAE's other businesses such as aerospace, defence and automotive.

Measuring

Sport has been at the forefront of measurement technology for more than a century, and Dr Tom Shannon, Director of the motion capture company Vicon, showed the conference Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering freeze-frame camera work from the 1870s. Today's equivalent is the biomarker technology used to pinpoint athletes' techniques in detail as an aid to improving performance. It is also used in films such as Avatar to generate computer images based on real movements.

A theme from the measuring session was that sport has led many developments in measurement technology. Devices incorporating pressure sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes and other equipment are now routinely used by athletes to record and analyse movements; these provide objectivity where previous methods tended to be based merely on observation, said Professor Kamiar Aminian from EPFL. However, there was still much work to be done to extend this kind of technology into sectors such as healthcare clinics, where the older methods were still the norm.

Professor Mike Caine from Loughborough University's Sports Technology Institute said that ideas such as these had radically increased the amount of data available, not just in sport, but more widely. He said that surveys of users of sports equipment and prosthetics indicated that "qualitative" factors such as comfort and ease of use rated highly as concerns, and metrics for these were not always clear. There is a lot of data, but there needs to be more.

Designing

The contributors to the third session of the conference on designing brought different viewpoints on the real driver for innovation: identifying what is really needed.

Professor Wendy Tindale, Scientific Director of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, returned to the theme of personalisation and saw promise in technologies such as biomedical modelling, which spans both sport and healthcare. She noted, however, that engineering used to enhance sporting performance tended to be geared towards elite performers, where in healthcare a lack of any technology frustrated those ground down by long-term conditions.

Two of the speakers have personal experience of needs from different ends of the span identified by Professor Tindale. Dr Amit Goffer of Argo Medical Technologies spoke from the heart in identifying the needs of people with lower limb disabilities that had led him to develop Re-Walk, an exoskeleton device that enables them, and him, to stand, walk and even climb stairs. Rainer Küschall has developed ‘sports’ wheelchairs and other devices - not least because he himself wants to pursue an active sporting career at high level despite being in a wheelchair for almost 50 years.

Some of Professor Tindale's concerns about bringing systems used in sports into mainstream biomedical use in healthcare may be answered by Dr Jon Wheat's work at Sheffield Hallam University on adapting the Kinect motion capture technology used in games simulators for clinical functions. But Dr Wheat had a wider engineering design point to make as well. Part of his work on motion capture has led him to challenge the assumption that there is a ‘right’ way to achieve top sports performance: common optimal movement patterns. Individual performance is more to do with the constraints of the task, the environment and the person doing it, he said. If this principle applies in sport, then it applies elsewhere too and that could have implications across the whole of engineering design.

Notes for editors

  1. The conference How can sport drive engineering innovation? was held on 4 September 2012 at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. It was organised by the Academy in conjunction with the UK Science & Innovation Network, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Healthtech and Medicines Knowledge Transfer Network, and UK Trade & Investment.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton