There is one sport in particular where data analysis has led the way, taking a leaf out of Formula 1’s manual for speed – cycling. As we have mentioned previously on Humans Invent, data crunching to go faster has become a major part of training regimes for top level cyclists – particularly as the margins between success and failure are so small.
The laser works by reading a personalized code from a retro reflective tag attached to each bike
One such company who helped UK Sport in applying the technology and engineering expertise to accurately measure data was BAE Systems. It was their military precision laser time-keeping technology that assisted British cyclists in training for the Olympics. A technology that was previously used on the battlefield is now helping athletes on the front-line.
Kelvin Davies, BAE Systems Project Leader of the UK Sport Technology Partnership sat down with Humans Invent to discuss how military laser tech was applied to cycling and just why the relationship between science, sport and technology is very much still in its infancy.
Thanks for talking to us. Can you explain how the military field lasers were used by the army? And where the idea came from to apply them to British cycling training?
Firstly the two technologies are slightly different. We have a group of highly specialist laser physicists in our team in the advanced technology centre at BAE Systems who worked on military precision lasers normally used to identify friend or foe on the battlefield. But the challenge set for British cycling was actually similar to the battlefield – they wanted to know which cyclist was which, where they were located and how fast they were traveling. So we helped the British cycling team find increased levels of speed, strength and endurance by installing a sophisticated performance monitoring system at the Manchester Velodrome, the British team’s training base.
The new performance system demonstrates the essential role of engineering in helping our athletes to achieve those fractional improvements, which are often key to great sporting success and we are very proud to have had the opportunity to harness our skills to support our British athletes.
Can you expand on how the system worked?
The laser timing technology derived from a battlefield identification system offered an entirely new approach to performance monitoring in cycling, improving on a previous break-beam system which was unable to differentiate between individual cyclists racing around the track at the same time.
The new system allows up to 30 riders to race each other simultaneously whilst coaches track each individual cyclist’s second-by-second performance in real time. The laser works by reading a personalized code from a retro reflective tag attached to each bike, which can capture individual timings with millisecond accuracy.
In 2007 we set in place a unique £1.5 million Technology Partnership with UK Sport, which sees high-tech defence technology and thinking applied to the areas of sports development where it is needed the most. We wanted to showcase our engineering expertise and also to inspire the engineers of the future. We have heard a lot about the legacy of sporting achievement during the 2012 games, but we wanted our work during the past 5 years to help inspire more engineers to come to the fore. We felt it was a good fit to give UK Sport access to our technologies and help support our athletes in competing at this Summer’s Olympics and of course, beyond.
I think where engineering, science and technology comes in, is to make sure they are putting their energies in the right direction
The technology did in fact become a key part of their training. If you look at the coaches that are part of British cycling, they all want more data. It is so important and cannot be underestimated in a professional training regime. Using our technology was experimenting with something different and seeing what impact it had on the cyclists’ performance.
We wanted to help in measuring athletes performances, as the more accurate information you have, the more you can understand the precise effect of what you are trying out in training. This could be testing a new type of material for your outfits, or a variety of new training regimes – but to fully understand the effects of these you need an efficient timing system. The margins are so small and just seeing the training in action, you can see that the attention to detail is just staggering. Everything is meticulous.
For example, each athlete having their own pillow as they travel around the world results in a better night’s sleep and could make all the difference between gold and silver. Our role was simply to provide the most accurate timing system possible – fortunately the military laser technology was a great fit.
Do you think cycling is leading the way in terms of the professional use of data to improve performance? And do you think this will be the catalyst for the use of science and technology in other sports?
My purely personal response would be yes to both. I think there is a good opportunity to apply more science to training. We have some fantastic athletes, but by and large they are not engineers. They are chosen due to their athleticism and I think more scientists and engineers should support them using their expertise. In fact I think it is a really fruitful partnership.
You have to look at how unbelievably committed these athletes are. I know it is a cliché but they really do put in 110%. I think where engineering, science and technology comes in, is to make sure they are putting their energies in the right direction and making sure they are doing the right things for optimum results. The more technology gets involved, the more you realise just how small the margins are between success and failure – and there is no more true an example than top level cycling.