How can tiny sensors improve athletes’ performance?

Sensing technology is changing how athletes train. Inspired by the human body, this cutting-edge kit will translate movements and metabolic measurements into an understanding of athletes’ performance.

Image: Flickr/Shannalee

Body sensors can measure speed, location and power. This information can be combined with output from sensors on other athletes or in the training environment to produce a ‘body sensor network’. This gives athletes richer information to help them improve.

Image: Imperial College London

Researchers have ‘shrunk’ electronics to make tiny and smart sensors. They reduced the size of the sensors by 500 times. While these devices are tiny they are easily as smart as your phone.

Image: Imperial College London

To cope with intense training and extreme environments, the design of these sensors is inspired by how our own body works. The weight of the current design is 7 grams – lighter than any garment in an athlete’s wardrobe.

Video: Wikimedia/Didier Descouens

The e-AR is a sensor that mimics the human inner ear. It’s packed with motion-sensing devices such as accelerometers, which measure increases in speed, as well as a data processing unit and components for wireless communication. It can work non-stop for a week without having its battery recharged.

Video: Imperial College London

Athletes wear an e-AR on their ear to capture biological signals on their motion, balance and posture. Researchers use this information to analyse the athletes’ movements and power in real time. This will even let them detect problems with an athlete’s ankle or knee.

Image: Imperial College London

Movement goes with strength. This is why it’s important to monitor muscle action and its response in training. Researchers do this with this sweat patch, a skin-worn sensor that weighs less than a penny.

Image: Imperial College London

This sweat patch will capture and measure lactate, which is produced when muscles work hard and is released with sweat. It helps researchers to understand athletes’ energy metabolism. This information is important for training plans that improve athletes’ stamina.

1409846340550809Professor Guang-Zhong Yang (far left) is Director of the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College London. Nancy (immediate left), one of his team, interviewed him on behalf of the Science Museum. Professor Yang and his team develop new technologies to improve sports performance and healthcare.


What excites you about designing technologies for sports?

‘How elite athletes maintain their competitive advantage by getting each step right always fascinates me. Tiny, smart sensors, inspired by the human body, work as a network of sensors. This sensing network will help to fine-tune the athlete’s performance during training.’




Why use the human body as the source of inspiration?

‘In order to survive and compete in nature, all living beings have developed many ingenious sensing capabilities. We draw inspiration from how the human body regulates and protects itself through sensing. This helps us to create sensors that are simple and effective as possible.’




What’s the main advantage of the technologies you develop?

‘The sensors communicate with each other and use a minimal amount of power. This means a network can provide long-term, continuous sensing. This could also have significant impact on the future of healthcare. For instance, monitoring patients will help to manage chronic diseases and rehabilitation after surgery.’




What are the challenges to adapt sports sensors for healthcare?

‘For sports we know the athlete’s environment and actions. But for healthcare, we need to consider that sensors will be used in many different scenarios. Monitoring changes in a patient in any environment without restricting their activity, or behaviour, is a major challenge.’




How does your team adapt sensors for healthcare?

‘The team is a mix of engineers, designers and clinicians. I make sure the entire team is seamlessly integrated into the project so the sensors we create work well on every level. It’s a great working environment that allows everyone to shine.’




What’s the future of sensing technologies?

‘You will see even smaller sensors with more processing power and more sophisticated sensing capabilities. They will be present everywhere and will function by harvesting energy from the environment, so they won’t even need batteries.’




Some experts were asked for their views…


Roger Armitage, Adidas Wearable Sports Electronics

‘Wearable technology allows researchers to collect accurate data from athletes during training. By learning more about the how their body reacts to the strains of exercise, coaches can make more personalised training plans. The sensors are comfortable to wear so can be used while people enjoy a wide range of activities.’


Lord Darzi of Denham, St Mary’s Hospital

‘Surgical intervention must not be seen as starting with an incision or ending when the patient leaves the operating theatre. We need to use technology to monitor and enhance the recovery of patients after surgery. Embedded sensors could be used to detect complications early. Sensing technologies are likely to play an increasingly important role in future healthcare, as well as promoting life-long health and wellbeing.’


Scott Drawer, UK Sport

‘I help put in place research programmes to support swimming coaches and their science staff. Training sessions have improved thanks to movement-tracking and measurement sensors. Wireless sensors are definitely the future of athletic training. By knowing a swimmer’s body position, speed and acceleration, their coach can provide really detailed advice. These sensors enhance the quality of pool-side feedback.’


Brian Day, UCL

‘These sensors can provide clinicians and researchers with information about how patients move about at home and work. The information could be used to see how effective a treatment is. We intend to use the e-AR sensor to compare the benefits of deep brain stimulation and drug treatment on the mobility of patients with Parkinson’s disease in their homes.’

This article was originally published as an interactive document in the Antenna gallery at the Science Museum.

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