BAE Systems Plc, Europe’s largest weapons maker, and Formula 1 team owner McLaren Group Ltd. are among British companies and universities offering engineering know-how to raise the U.K.’s Olympic medal count this summer.
U.K. Sport, a provider of state funding to the country’s Olympics program, has recruited about 100 companies and 25 academic institutions to adapt industrial technology for use in sports, according to Scott Drawer, the agency’s head of research and innovation.
The project has given British Olympic athletes including cyclist Chris Hoy, wheelchair racer David Weir and canoeists Jon Schofield and Liam Heath access to facilities and products such as aerospace-industry wind tunnels, electronic identification tags used by soldiers and nano-coated materials as they prepare for the 2012 London Olympics that start on July 27.
The number of nations represented among medal winners has grown since the 1980s, Drawer said in a phone interview. “Those margins are much smaller, so you’re constantly looking at new ways to improve your athletes. By applying science, technology and engineering we can improve performance.”
U.K. Sport, which has a 100 million-pound ($156 million) annual budget, has invested more than 7.5 million pounds in the innovation program in the past four years, with the business and academic partners supplying another 15 million pounds in cash or in-kind contributions. Britain’s Olympic swimming, shooting, taekwondo and sailing teams are among those that have made use of the technology developed.
Hours and Equipment
BAE and U.K. Sport set up their partnership in January 2008 in a deal valued at about 1.5 million pounds in employee hours and equipment, said Kelvin Davies, the manufacturer’s lead engineer and project manager for the venture.
Products developed by London-based BAE for British teams include the so-called eccentric ergometer, a cycle that drives the legs backward and increases leg power, as well as tags worn by bicyclists to enhance precision timing. Most of BAE’s work has focused on improving training, Davies said.
The tags, an adaptation of existing BAE technology for distinguishing friend from foe on a battlefield, enable trainers to track performance of individual riders practicing in a pack.
“It’s like a sophisticated bar code,” Davies said. “We’re taking the technology from defense science and putting it into the sports world.” Adapting the military product is “a great way to showcase our capabilities.”
Home-crowd support will probably boost Britain’s medal haul, as hosting the Olympics can improve team performance by as much as 25 percent, according to a U.K. Sport study. The country’s 550-member team will be its biggest for an Olympics.
At least 95 percent of British athletes thought likeliest to win medals across 25 Olympic and Paralympic sports have been involved with U.K. Sport’s innovation program at some point in the past four years, Drawer said.
The technology program carries on a tradition of improving conditions for athletes with each Olympics, Martin Polley, a senior sports lecturer at the University of Southampton, said.
“The first Olympic swimming race held in the U.K. took place in the Thames, the next in a pool in the stadium,” Polley said at a May 23 press conference in London. “At the time, that was a major innovation.”
British cycling, bobsledding and wheelchair-racing teams, starting with wheelchair gold-medalist Weir, have worked in BAE’s wind tunnel in northwest England, which is normally used to test military aircraft, Davies added.
Prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, using wind tunnels to figure out aerodynamics was a new technique in track cycling, said Stephen Turnock, director of the University of Southampton’s Performance Sports Engineering Laboratory. The success of the British cycling team at the games in China has driven a surge of interest into body positioning, he said in an interview at the university’s wind tunnel in southern England, where triple-gold medalist Hoy has trained.
A separate project at the university has tested 35 out of 38 British swimmers for the London Olympics, using a custom-made towing machine that drags the athletes through the water to track propulsive force and speed.
Other engineering tools developed in partnership with U.K. Sport include P2i Ltd.’s nano-coating liquid repellent, which will be used on clothing for cyclists and harnesses for sailors. Sprint canoeists have practiced in a once top-secret Ministry of Defense water tank, owned by QinetiQ Group Plc. The 270-meter (890-foot) tank was designed to test surface ships, submarines and offshore structures.
“Most countries have access to similar technologies,” Drawer said. “But there is so much expertise in the British sector.” Eighty-five percent of the world’s Formula 1 engineers are U.K.-based, he said, citing the car-racing series operator, and “we’re building on our strengths.”
Much of McLaren’s work for U.K. Sport has focused on sensors and instrumentation for real-time performance data on athletes, Geoff McGrath, head of the company’s applied technologies unit, said in a telephone interview.
The partnership with U.K. Sport helped McLaren reach independent deals with England’s Rugby Football Union as well as with San Jose, California-based Specialized Bicycle Components Inc., a closely held bicycle maker, the executive said. With Specialized, the company developed the $18,000 McLaren Venge used by Mark Cavendish when he won the final stage of the 2011 Tour de France bicycling race.
The work with U.K. Sport “allows us to showcase early-stage technologies at the most demanding level,” McGrath said. “Once you’re confident that the technologies are proven and valuable to the coaches, then the knock-on in professional sport is inevitable.”
Technology is only effective in sports when it builds on athletes’ natural talent and a good training setup, Drawer said. “Science can help guide the athlete in their development and preparation over many years, and that effort that they put in is more important to the outcome than rocking up at the Games and using a new bit of equipment.”