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Paralympics technology will feed through into society, say engineers

03 September 2012

The London 2012 Paralympic Games is playing host to some of the most advanced prosthetic and wheelchair technology ever seen in an Olympic stadium, says the IMechE.

Sports engineering is playing a central role in certain key sports, with Team GB amongst the most technologically advanced teams taking part in the Paralympics. Examples of the new engineering advances making their debut at London 2012 include:

Wheelchair sports
Engineers have worked on every aspect of Paralympic wheelchairs to make them lighter, more agile and adapted to their owner. UK Sport worked with innovation partners including BMW and Loughborough University to develop a polypropylene seat that is ergonomically designed to provide stability and a tight fit, while Evazote foam is used to prevent pressure sores.

Wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) – computer modelling technology used to assess aerodynamics – have also been used to help British Paralympians find the most aerodynamic seat position and posture, as well as develop the racing wheelchairs they use.

Behind the scenes, McLaren Applied Technologies has used technology developed for Formula One to develop an indoor tracking system that Team GB wheelchair basketball coaches have used to fine-tune training programmes and develop tactics.

Carbon fibre running prostheses, such as those used by Oscar Pistorius, can now deliver an elastic energy return of 92%, compared to 95% for natural human tendons. The connection between the body and the artificial limb has also been improved – sockets use silicone liners to prevent blistering and discomfort while suction valves are used to provide a seamless connection between the skin and prosthetic.

The key piece of equipment for many Paralympic discus, shot put and club throwers is the throwing frame. These frames were once crudely adapted chairs, but for the 2012 Paralympics many athletes have turned to engineers to refine their design. Stephen Miller, a Team GB club and discus thrower, has been working with UK company Tharsus to create a bespoke throwing frame which straps the athlete in by his thighs, allowing them to use all their force to throw with a free range of movement. 

Discus thrower Derek Derenlagi, a former soldier who lost his legs in Afghanistan, turned to engineering charity Remap to develop a similar bespoke adjustable aluminium frame, which has specially made sockets for Derek’s leg prostheses.

Ossur, one of the world’s leading prosthetics manufacturers, has developed a specially-designed leg prosthetic for use in track cycling. Five times Paralympic gold medallist Jody Cundy (GB) has been working with engineers since Beijing to modify the design of his Ossur artificial limb so it is now more lightweight and aerodynamic, and no longer requires a cycling shoe as the leg clips into the pedal. Jon-Allan Butterworth, also of Team GB, uses a prosthetic arm that has been specially designed to allow him to cycle in the most aerodynamic position possible. 

The advances made for these Paralympics are unlikely to remain confined to the Olympic Park. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stipulates in its guidelines that manufacturers of all the equipment used during London 2012 must consider the cost and large-scale availability of their products, ensuring that their developments are not restricted to the elite.

Lighter, more agile carbon-fibre wheelchairs are already commercially available, but can cost as much as £2,000. As this technology develops, thanks, in part, to the work sports engineers are doing with elite athletes, their availability is likely to dramatically increase.

Philippa Oldham, Head of Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “Advanced engineering is playing a role in almost every Paralympic sport, whether it’s the behind-the-scenes systems helping coaches to fine-tune their training programmes or the equipment helping to deliver medal-winning performances.

“The skill and dedication of the individual Paralympians will always be the most important factor in deciding the medals table, but technology can help these athletes reach their full potential, shaving milliseconds off their time that can make the difference between a gold and silver medal.

“The advances made in elite Paralympic sport will not be restricted to elite athletes, as the new prosthetics and wheelchair technology on display at London 2012 inevitably filters through to wider society, improving the lives of disabled people across the world.”

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) released a landmark report last month investigating the progress and impact of sports engineering on elite sport and society as a whole. The Sports Engineering: An Unfair Advantage? report can be downloaded from the Institution’ website.

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