Tracking the wave of success for Team GB's swimmers

Supplementary content information

Photographic portrait of Professor Paul Conway

Training sessions for Team GB's swimmers have been getting a helping hand from a new system incorporating cutting-edge movement tracking and sensor technologies.

From starting dives to tumble turns the state-of-the-art coaching aid is the first of its kind to be able to track movement wirelessly through water.

The system has been developed at Loughborough University's Sports Technology Institute in conjunction with British Swimming, with funding from the EPSRC. Other partners are UK Sport, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London.

It generates comprehensive data on the swimmer's body position, speed and acceleration and enables coaches to provide feedback and advice that is more immediate, more detailed and more objective than previously possible. The data is accessed via a laptop and could be used by those with expertise to interpret the information to suggest alterations to the swimmer's technique at the poolside during training.

Not only has the Loughborough team refined a range of existing sensing and motion tracking technologies for use in the system, but this is also the first time these technologies have been assembled into one integrated package. Moreover, the system is underpinned by revolutionary patentable technology specially developed by the researchers that enables data to be transmitted wirelessly through water.

Transmitting signals wirelessly is much more difficult through water than through air, especially in a swimming pool where there is so much water turbulence and noise from pool filtration systems, says Professor Paul Conway, who, together with Professor Andy West, has led the project. Solving this problem was vital to the development of our multi-component motion tracking system.

In the past, during training sessions, coaches have provided feedback to Britain's elite swimmers based on the limited impression they form using their own eyes. Although video footage has been available, it has only been possible to study this for technical information after a session has been completed.

In the new system, a lightweight, streamlined box (80 x 50 mm and 12 mm thick) containing tiny accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensing technologies, is fitted to the small of the swimmer's back. Force transducers are incorporated into the starting blocks and pressure sensors into touch pads at the end of swimming lanes. Waterproof Light Emitting Diode(LED) markers have also been developed as part of the project and these can be attached to the swimmer's hips or other key body areas to help monitor their body movements.

As the swimmer moves, data are sent to the laptop where bespoke software interprets and displays the information, in easy-to-understand forms, alongside video footage provided by cameras positioned above and below the waterline. The data include, for example, the force of the swimmer's push-off from the blocks, the length of time they remain in the air during their dive, the angle of their body as they enter the water and as they swim, their stroke rate and the length of time they are in contact with the pool wall during a turn - all of which provides the best possible platform of accurate information equipping the coach to offer the best possible timely feedback.

The new system has enabled elite training sessions to become even more productive, says Professor Michael Caine, Director of the Sports Technology Institute. Ultimately, even small adjustments to technique can pay big dividends. Our aim has been to provide a legacy for swimmers to fulfil their potential at this summer's and future Olympics.

The current system represents the culmination of five years' development and potentially also has a wide range of applications beyond sport. For example, in healthcare, the movement tracking technology could provide an objective assessment of the rehabilitation performance of someone recovering from a stroke, while in industry the ability to work wirelessly in wet or electronically noisy environments could be useful for tracking high-value components or assets in challenging factory conditions.

Notes for Editors

The main focus of the project has been on providing data about (i) the start of the race when the swimmer dives into the pool and (ii) their turns at the end of a length, as these two phases offer the most potential for a swimmer to shave significant amounts off their race time by adjusting their technique. In particular, starting blocks used in international swimming events are now adjustable and a new instrumented starting block together with the wireless system has helped British swimmers identify how to exploit this feature to the full.

Funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund is being used to explore how the technology could be adapted for use in other applications.

The main swimming competition at the 2012 London Olympics will comprise 34 medal events and will take place at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park between Saturday 28 July and Saturday 04 August.

This research is part of the Elite Sport Performance Research in Training with Pervasive Sensing project (ESPRIT). British Swimming is also a partner for this research.

The overall ESPRIT project is funded by EPSRC, led by Imperial College London in partnership with UK Sport and supported by Queen Mary University of London and Loughborough University. It involves researchers from the three universities working alongside British athletes via UK Sport's Research and Innovation programme.

Other individuals who have played a significant role in the research are:

  • Jodi Cossor - from British Swimming who worked on the biomechanics and helped develop the user requirements and specifications of the technology.
  • Dr Sian Slawson - who led on the design of the starting blocks and pressure mat and also the trials of the system with the swimmers, alongside Jodi Cossor.
  • Axel Bindel - who led on the design and packaging of the wireless node and worked with Tanya Lesage in writing the embedded software and algorithms that allow the network of nodes to operate.
  • Nandini Chakravorti - main software researcher. She has written the application on the laptops that acquires, processes and presents the information from the nodes, starting block, pressure mat and video streams.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 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 UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. 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.

Loughborough University is one of the country's leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines. It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables.

In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK. And it was the top university in England in the 2012 Times Higher Education poll measuring best student experience. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes. It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

Reference: PN 47-12