It’s been 20 years since former US President Bill Clinton issued a policy directive declaring that the Global Positioning System (GPS) used by the military should be de-scrambled and made available to the public. It took until 2000 for this to be fully actioned. Speaking in May 2000 Clinton said that “GPS has become a global utility” and that “it benefits users around the world in many different applications, including air, road, marine, and rail navigation, telecommunications, emergency response, oil exploration, mining, and many more”.
Today, thanks mainly to the proliferation of smartphones with mobile maps and satnav applications, we have become accustomed to GPS and regularly rely upon it. So why change it if it’s not broken? One company in Australia thinks it is worth the effort, at least when it comes to helping sports teams track players and athletes.
While in the US the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing its own positioning tracking technology to overcome GPS blind spots and interference. In Europe the Galileo system project is well underway and in Australia a group of academics from Griffith University in Queensland have come up with their own alternative.
According to Daniel James, an associate professor at the university and a director of SABEL Labs, when sports teams use the technology to track players and try to improve performance, it is flawed.
“GPS is designed for vehicles and thus assumes steady state motion,” he says. “Human gait is less predictable and so, even for steady running, there are errors greater than 10 per cent in many cases. It’s also dependant on satellite coverage, so not so useful for indoors or stadia where the high sides occlude the satellite accuracy.”
James talks about how in 2012 France blocked Wales from closing its roof at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff during the Six Nations Tournament as it would interfere with its GPS tracking. This he says is an unnecessary use of the technology. It is “overkill” as finding where a person is located exactly on the planet is unnecessary when all you are really interested in is how hard they are working.
So what’s the alternative?
SABEL Sense, says James is a wearable sensor that collects data from digital MEMS inertial sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope) and a digital magnetometer. In short it uses human biomechanics to derive data which is transmitted wirelessly to a local computer, enabling the user to build a picture of individual performance. He adds that it is cheaper than GPS and therefore more accessible.
The company has already had interest from a number of sports teams and bodies too.
“We work very closely with elite sports in Australia and internationally who are interested in the finer detailed information, more than just position or the distance run,” says James.
“We have helped put athletes on podiums, reduce injury and better tailor the training environment. We have also developed the technology to look at arm action in a cricket bowler and validated that against World Cup athletes. One of the big sports we work with is swimming, which is our number-one sport in Australia.”
The aim, says James, is to extend continually the breadth of data analysed from athlete movement and performance. SABEL is currently working on extending the technology by looking at multiple points on the body to recreate what each of the limb segments are doing at any given time. That means, for swimmers at least, whether there are flaws in the kick or reach of a stroke, or in cricket whether the bowler can improve performance by ironing out minor issues with the run up or delivery arm.
“We are using rate gyroscopes to look at angular information too,” says James, who points to a paper entitled Decision-tree-based human activity classification algorithm using single-channel foot-mounted gyroscope. This paper investigates the accuracy of wearable devices measuring human activity in real time and concludes that “a robust classification system is feasible for implementation on embedded hardware for real-time daily monitoring”.
Accuracy is good, says the report, which cites tests showing that the technology could match each stride to its activity with greater than 90 per cent accuracy and that running and walking strides in particular matched with greater than 99 per cent accuracy.
“Where we used to focus on single athlete analysis today we are monitoring entire populations of athletes across seasons and years,” adds James. The technology is moving towards personalised monitoring using data analytics and SABEL’s specialist knowledge around biomechanics to create an understanding of how to extract meaningful data for the future. This says James, is something beyond GPS.
So does he think ultimately GPS will be displaced by alternative technologies in the next few years or does it have a longer shelf life?
“Moore’s Law tells us that miniaturisation will continue and so GPS will become smaller and cheaper; so too will other positioning systems. We see a fusion of a wide range of technologies that will improve accuracy and better specificity for individual needs. For example, as you transition from outdoor environments, the GPS data phases out and others come in, through cell towers, self-assembling local area networks and so on.”
James, who is a fan of Japanese martial arts, has a role with the Australian Jujitsu federation and runs his own dojo, sees the value of understanding biomechanics first hand, especially in improving his throws, he says. This, it seems is the future of sport and we are only at the start, a beginning which perhaps signifies the eventual end of GPS influence.
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