Shape of things to comeBody sensor network to improve individual's performance, safety

Published 14 September 2007

Imperial College London’s researcher develops sensor which monitors athletes’ performance; it may be used to monitor soldiers, first responders — and the sick and the eledrly

If Barry Bonds were present in the talk Professor Guang-Zhong Yang gave yesterday at Imperial College London, perhaps he would have realized that he could have broken Hank Aaron’s homerun record without bulking up on all those steroids. Yang, a pioneer in the field of body sensor networks, discussed the medical and sporting applications of an unobtrusive body sensor, the size of a hearing aid, which could monitor and ultimately improve the performance of an athlete while training. His presentation was part of the Achieving Gold with Engineering event organized by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The research Yang is doing is important beyond sports, and would be useful for soldiers in trainign or in the field, first responders in a disaster area, fire-fighters in a burning building, and in other situations in which the performance of the individual should be carefully monitored to detect problems and initiate corrective action.

Back to the use of the sensors to enhance sporting performance.The sensor Yang has developed is inspired by the semicircular canals of the inner ear which are responsible for controlling motion and balance. It fits snugly behind the ear and gathers large amounts of data about posture, step frequency, stride length, acceleration, and response to shock waves travelling through the body. A computer, the size of a pin head, but with enough power to process information, sits inside the earpiece and transmits data to a laptop or handheld display trackside. This allows for real-time monitoring of athletic performance by coaching staff. “The process of having biomechanical data available on the spot during training sessions makes the whole process of improving sporting technique much quicker and easier,” said Yang. Current body sensors available are cumbersome, hinder athletic performance and cannot deliver real-time monitoring, he adds. “Our sensor technology is comfortable to wear and does not affect the aerodynamics of an athlete’s performance. This makes the data more accurate and much more valuable,” he explains.

Yang believes that the sensor also has important potential applications for preventative medicine. Previous research suggests that the walking pattern of a person changes if their medical condition worsens. By analyzing changes, via the sensor, medics can potentially detect if a person’s health is deteriorating. This information is particularly useful for monitoring people living with Parkinson’s disease. Yang says that the sensors could also be useful for monitoring the elderly and patients with chronic illnesses. He comments: “The interface between human and computer via the sensors allows for a constant stream of information to be analysed by doctors. This technology could help monitor those with degenerative arthritis or those who have undergone orthopaedic surgery.”

You may want to know that Imperial College London is rated as the world’s ninth best university in the 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement survey. Imperial College London is a science-based institution which attracts 11,500 students and 6,000 staff. The college boasts 66 Fellows of the Royal Society among its current academic staff. Current and past members of the college include 14 Nobel Laureates and two Fields Medallists.