They Have It...We're Working On It

They Have It…We’re Working On It

Triathlon has it. Cycling has it. Running has it. Car racing has it. Endurance sports of every kind have it.

But open water swimming is working on it.

And we foresee breakthroughs in the technology very soon.

Already the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in New York City and Quebec’s Traversee Internationale du lac St-Jean, the world’s richest professional marathon swim, and a handful of other races, utilize GPS technology that track their athletes along the course.

For those fans, friends and family who are not at the race venue, GPS tracking allows them to get a general idea of where they are on the course. Similar to the SPOT Satellite Messenger and various other technologies that are used by channel swimmers from England to Catalina, these GPS tracking devices periodically pinpoint the swimmer’s location and post their general location online. For a solo swimmer or for a competition where the athletes are spread out all over the course (like in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim or the Traversee, it works well and serves its purpose.

But for close races where athletes are bunched together like they are at major international competitions and top-level mass participation races, the GPS technology which generally uses wrist or ankle transponder does not work well. For various reasons, the GPS positioning is not exact and the athletes in a pack all appear to be one giant blob online. This is the reason why high-speed cameras are used at major international competitions in order to record and confirm placing in the event.

GPS is not accurate enough for timing. The chips that were used at the world championships by Powerhouse Timing are RFID-based with a battery (note: land-based sports generally do not have batteries). At the world championships, Powerhouse Timing used a wire across the water level to get its accuracy down to a thousandth of a second. “Any time you get away from a physical plane, the algorithmic work on the software side is far more complex,” explained Jason Moody.

Practical problems exist all over the place: the size of the battery needed to power the GPS devices, the size of the GPS devices needed to properly triangulate the position and even the location of the devices that are placed on the athlete’s body.

If you could imagine that if one swimmer placed the GPS device on their swim cap, another swimmer placed the GPS device on their wrist and another placed the GPS device on their ankle – and they all crossed the finish line exactly as the same time, their times would be recorded separately. Even if all the GPS devices were attached to their wrists and swimmer A touched with a flat palm, swimmer B touched with an outstretched hand and swimmer C went past the finish without touching the board at all, the times would also be recorded differently.

But Professor Tim Johnson of the Wentworth Institute of Technology will be working with his intellectual colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Lowell to tackle – and hopefully solve – this problem of open water swimming via a water-based RFID solution.

While the Americans are looking for a solution utilizing the increasingly cost-effective and powerful RFID technology, their British colleagues are moving towards an innovative solution for the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2012 London Olympics.

The London Olympics 10K marathon swim will be a six-loop course in the Serpentine that will showcase the sport in many unique ways. The turn judges will be elevated so they can more easily see infractions around the turns, paid seating for up to 30,000 spectators will be constructed for the finish and most incredibly, donut-shaped buoys will delineate the course that will not have any straight-line tangents except for the final straightaway finish.

The donut-shaped floating buoys will have transmitters that will triangulate each swimmer’s position via GPS and transponders on the wrists of each athlete. As each swimmer passes the buoy, their position and time will be noted and posted in near real-time online for the global audience.

By tracking their position and split times (as Powerhouse Timing did at the recent world championships), fans, friends and family around the world will be able to keep up with the superstars in the sport.

Eventually, this technology will be availabe to the masses.

We cannot wait.

Photo by Dr. Jim Miller shows the athletes at the world championships swimming under the timing truss that recorded their split times on each loop via the transponders on their wrists.

Copyright © 2010 by Steven Munatones
Steven Munatones