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3D laser scanner gives Olympic edge

23 Aug 2004

Laser scanning optimises the aerodynamic profile of track bikes racing around the Olympic velodrome in Athens.

Sports engineers in the UK equipped with a 3D laser scanner are honing the aerodynamic profile of Great Britain's Olympic track cycling team. With Olympic records tumbling and a tally of two gold medals and one silver, the research group appears to have hit upon a winning formula.

Part funded by a DTI grant, Sheffield University's Sports Engineering Research Group (SERG) set up the facility back in 2003 as part of a national program to give the UK elite sports industry access to advanced R&D facilities.

The group use a 3D scanning system, known as 'ModelMaker', to digitize sports equipment and athletes into a high resolution surface map. Based around a 5 mW class IIIa laser, the system supplied by 3D Scanners UK uses a 70 mm scan line to generate more than 23 000 points per second spaced at 50 micron intervals.

Guided by hand, the operator moves the scanner head over the target in a manner similar to spray-painting. "The system can render the surface in real-time," David Curtis of SERG told Optics.org. "You can see where you've missed points and quickly go back and rescan."

Working on the principle of laser stripe triangulation, a camera set at an angle to the target surface logs variations in height by detecting changes in the shape of the scan line. From a cycling perspective, the scanner provides an elegant way of integrating the rider and the bike into an aerodynamic model.

With gold medals riding on a fraction of a second's advantage, optimising the aerodynamic performance of the bike and rider is essential. "The split is around 66% rider, 34% bike," explained Curtis. "Because it is very hard to alter a rider's physical shape, the team's focus is on getting a rider into a position that optimizes biomechanical performance as well as being aerodynamic."

James Tyrrell is reporter on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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