Safety Technology in Sports

Safety Technology Shit Accidents happen. Nobody plans for them to happen. But they do. The thought of “what if…” can be quite frightening, especially for people with some form of anxiety disorder. So if you are going for an overseas holiday, you might take up a travel insurance; if you are a school teacher bringing kids out for an excursion, you might prepare a risk management plan before that; and if you are organising a football competition, you will want to ensure that you got first aiders or sports trainers during the game. For protection, athletes wear safety equipment such as helmets, mouth guards, body armour, braces, goggles, gloves etc to reduce the risk of injury and possibly death. But if one considers the theory of risk homeostasis, athletes may go harder or play with less caution because of the protective gear and thus negates the effect. Lately engineers/designers/innovators have resorted to using various sensor and wireless technologies to help manage or prevent serious injuries in sport. We will have a look at a couple of these technologies that have been developed.

Managing concussions

Riddell-helmet_x600

Riddell’s built-in sensors

Wearing helmets are only good for protecting against skull fractures but not brain concussions. The next best thing to do is to measure the amount of impact and deduce if that might cause a concussion. The first helmet with a comprehensive impact detection system was Riddell. The Riddell HITS technology helmet is embedded with multiple sensors that measure the magnitude and direction of impacts to a player’s head. The impact data is transmitted wirelessly to a computer at the bench where it is analysed to determine the likelihood that the player has a concussion. This helps coaches and medical staff decide whether or not to take a player out of a game or the next few games.

After Riddell, a couple other companies like Brain sentry and Shockbox came up with (cheaper and) more versatile solutions. Basically, they developed wireless sensor devices that can be mounted on your own sports helmet (whether it’s Gridiron, Hockey, Lacrosse, Snow sports etc). The Brain sentry sensor works by flashing a red light when an impact over a certain threshold is detected, and that is an indication that the player should get some medical attention – a simple and straightforward system. The Shockbox sensor sends out impact data directly to the coach’s smart phone via bluetooth and the smart phone app allows the coach to monitor all the athletes at once for dangerous hits. How do they decide what amount of ‘g’ is too much? Well research by Greenwald et al and Broglio et al showed that most concussions happen between 70-100g, so any impact above 70g => possible concussion. HelmetSensors There are a  few other head impact sensors that work on a similar concept but worn slightly differently (on/in the head). The i1 Biometrics Impact Intelligence System is a mouthguard with built-in sensors, while the Impact Indicator 2.0 is a chin strap also designed with sensors that measures high accelerations. One thing worthy to note about the i1 Biometrics mouthguard is their shock absorbing material Vistamaxx that is also customisable to every athlete’s mouth.

ImpactDetection2If you google “head concussion sensors”, you will find a few other similar products that is entering the market soon. The bottom line is, they all identify impacts that are over the “safe threshold” and athletes can be kept (safe) on the bench instead of getting a second hit which could be deadly. But to really know if an athlete had a concussion, they still need to have a CT scan or use this electromagnetic coil that is a cheap substitute.

Preventing drowning

There is a shocking number of people who die or become permanently disabled because of drowning. Even with lifeguards or in cases where children are playing in the water with adult supervision, drowning could still happen. That’s because it only takes 20 seconds for a child to drown underwater unnoticed and 1 minute for an adult. Which brings forth the need for drowning prevention technology.

Aqauatic Safety Concepts LLC patented an Electronic swimmer monitoring system that consist of wearable sensors (worn on swimmers) that measures time of submersion and a monitoring system  at the pool or lake that detects drowning risks and alerts the lifeguards on duty.

WahoooSMS_LakeFacility

The wearable sensor can be worn as a headband or attached to a swimmer’s goggles or swimming cap. The sensors send out a distress signal when submersion is past a safety limit, the signal is picked up by highly sensitive Hydrophone Receivers mounted in the lake or pool which then translates to an audio and visual alarm on land alerting lifeguards or  pool supervisors. In lakes or ponds where the water is not clear, a mobile receiver or Swimmer Locator can be used by the lifeguard to quickly find the distressed swimmer. A Control Tablet can also be used by the lifeguard to monitor status of swimmers in the facility.

But for folks who have a small home pool and don’t need such an elaborate system, there are a couple of choices for small portable systems, like the Safety Turtle and the SEAL Swim Safe. Both work on a rather similar concept: swimmer wears a wearable sensor that detects submersion and is monitored by a portable base station that runs on batteries.They both also use names of sea animals! Apart from that, they are actually quite different with two main differences:

  1. The Safety Turtle sensor is a wearable wrist band whereas the SEAL is a wearable neck band.
  2. Safety Turtle developed separate systems/devices for adults and pets; while the SEAL designed four different safety levels on the band, starting from an immersion alarm for the non-swimmer to a more complex triggering mechanism/algorithm for safeguarding elite swimmers.

DrowningDetectionTechWhen asked why the neck band design was used for the SEAL (which on first glance appears to be an awkward swimming accessory), the CEO and Co-inventor, Dr Graham Snyder said the sensor/antenna had to be in close proximity of the nose and mouth for the detection to be accurate; and tests with swimmers confirmed that having it at their neck was not as noticeable as they thought nor did it restrict swimming.

In fact, because the SEAL was designed to be used by swimmers of different abilities, one of the biggest challenge the developers had was preventing false alarms in every safety level and making sure that drowning detection is highly accurate and timely. Going forward, the team that brought out SEAL is also planning to add other features including GPS, two way communication and monitoring physiological parameters.

Even with all these terrific wireless sensor technologies developed for keeping sports safe,   the most critical component is still human intervention – coaches and medical staff to identify a possible concussion, and vigilant lifeguards and parents to note dangers and distress in swimmers. Without them those technology will just be another piece of accessory.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!

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