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Engineering Thrills

MIT’s STE@M is developing next-generation sporting equipment, from fishing reels and kiteboards to skis for disabled athletes.
February 18, 2014

Going head over handlebars on a downhill bike trail would scare anyone. But for Anette “Peko” Hosoi, crashing her bike through the Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, New Hampshire, also gave her an adrenaline rush and ultimately a flash of engineering insight: what would it take to design a better bike?

Joshua Slocum ’10, MEng ’11, (left) and Folkers Rojas ’08, SM ’11, (right) get a lesson in kiteboarding from an instructor on Kanaha Beach in Maui.

On her first trip to the park—a repurposed ski resort that takes bikers up 600 feet by chairlift to the peak—Hosoi, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, attempted the steep, granite-walled trails on a cross-country bike, with thrillingly poor results.

“I went over my handlebars eight times that day,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done! Imagine if I had the right bike.’”
Bruised and bloodied, she went online as soon as she returned home, looking for a downhill bike. What she found were designs that were all over the map: shock absorbers, front suspension systems, and steering mechanisms varied from bike to bike, and it wasn’t clear how such features affected performance.

At the time, Hosoi was teaching a course in mechanics and materials, and she put the problem to her students, asking them to analyze the mechanical loads under which a bike would deform. In the meantime, she spent her evenings drawing free body diagrams—rough sketches of the forces acting on a bike in different scenarios.

In casual conversation, Hosoi would mention her diagrams to other MIT faculty members. She quickly found she wasn’t the only thrill seeker in the bunch.

“It turns out half our faculty are closet sports fanatics,” she says. “They’re doing baseball statistics, or running triathlons, or are into Formula One or sailing, and a lot of them are doing these diagrams in their garage on the weekends.”

Hosoi put her bike project on hold to focus on a larger goal: linking those sports-loving engineers to form a “hub” for sports technology research. She envisioned a program that matches MIT innovators with sporting goods companies looking for novel products.

In the fall of 2011, Hosoi and about 25 faculty members from various departments formally created STE@M (Sports Technology and Education at MIT), a program that connects students, faculty, industry partners, and athletes so they can work together on projects at the intersection of sports and engineering. These projects—which can take the form of a graduate thesis, undergraduate research, a professor’s side venture, or a class assignment—are developing such ideas as an app for fantasy football that trolls Twitter for live updates, a model to analyze kiteboard performance, and a stronger, cheaper monoski for disabled skiers.

The projects also draw from a wide range of engineering disciplines, says Kim Blair, an advisor to STE@M and vice president of the product engineering firm Cooper Perkins. “Aerodynamics, human factors, thermodynamics, heat transfer—you could go on and on,” he says.

Blair works with students and sporting goods companies to come up with sports engineering challenges. It’s a role in which he’s comfortable: in 1999 he founded a similar program, Sports Innovation at MIT, that he is now incorporating into STE@M. As a research engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he ran the program for 14 years, during which time students built an apparatus to measure the performance of baseball bats and gloves and developed an accurate bike testing system that includes software and a stand that minimizes interference with the rider.

One of the projects that gained the most traction was a new design for a triathlon shoe. Blair, who has competed in numerous triathlons and Iron Man races, found that no sneaker on the market met all of a triathlete’s needs. Competitors need to change quickly from cycling shoes into running shoes, and they also typically hydrate more than marathon runners, increasing the possibility for spilling water during a run. A running sneaker that’s easy to slip on, and that minimizes moisture buildup, would give a triathlete that extra edge.

Blair first looked to the MIT track team for an interested student, and together, he and Chi-An Wang ’01 pitched the idea to the shoe company New Balance. With the company’s backing, in 2001 the team came up with a prototype for a triathlon shoe, which New Balance eventually brought to market. Blair wore the sneakers in competition for three seasons before the company stopped making them.

“It had a fairly significant run,” he recalls. “And what we felt was really important about this shoe is that it said the company was up for trying something new.”

Wind in their sails
That willingness to experiment is a quality Blair looks for when approaching potential STE@M partners. Most recently, he helped facilitate a connection with the outdoor company Patagonia.

Tetsuya O’Hara, director of advanced research and development at Patagonia, proposed holding a weeklong workshop for MIT faculty and students in Maui, Hawaii, to learn about wind technology and experience wind sports firsthand. While Patagonia mainly manufactures outdoor apparel, O’Hara says the company is making a surfboard and other surf-related products.

O’Hara says that MIT may be able to offer Patagonia fresh perspectives on sports technology. “[STE@M] faculty and students understand sports, so they have an eye from the user, and we can use the same language as a sportsman,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Hosoi was inundated with requests to join the trip. She eventually narrowed the field to applicants who demonstrated two qualities: a diverse engineering portfolio and a love of sports.

“I was looking for an overlap of these two passions,” she says. “Riding that bike downhill and going over the handlebars, I knew exactly what I needed. So you have to be part of that culture if you want to innovate within that culture.”

In January 2013, Hosoi headed to Hawaii with mechanical engineering professor Alex Slocum ’82, SM ’83, PhD ’85, and 15 students, including a few varsity athletes who would have to miss team training that week. To get permission for them to go on the trip, Hosoi and Slocum struck a deal with MIT’s track coach: Slocum, a triathlete himself, promised to run with the students at 6 a.m. every day.

Once in Maui, the group dropped by the studios of professional windsurfers Robby Naish and Francisco Goya, where they observed the process of handcrafting kiteboards. To give the students some hands-on experience, Patagonia arranged for them to have lessons every morning in a wind sport such as surfing, paddleboarding, kiteboarding, or windsurfing.

Some, like graduate student Pawel Zimoch, had never taken part in such sports before. Zimoch was particularly drawn to kiteboarding, in which a surfer, riding on a board while holding onto a large kite, catches a gust of wind to soar up to 40 feet above the surface of the water. Kiteboarding is a relatively new sport, and designs for both the kite and the board have quickly evolved as participants, tinkering in their workshops, have come up with configurations that enable them to go faster and higher. But these improvements have slowed in recent years.

“Enthusiasts were basing their innovations on their intuition and experiences,” Zimoch says. “At a certain point … what becomes important is an understanding of the physical principles.”

As Hosoi had found when studying downhill bikes, Zimoch realized it wasn’t clear what made one kiteboard better than another. After returning to the mainland, he and a few other students started testing the performance of kites in MIT’s wind tunnel. Although they found it difficult to obtain any meaningful measurements of a kite’s drag in various conditions, they also hope to measure the performance of boards in MIT’s towing tank.

Zimoch is also developing a basic computational model that designers may use to analyze how a kite and board, given certain dimensions and features, will fly in various wind conditions. He says the model may help designers craft kiteboards that are better suited to low winds. That could open the sport up to new beaches and widen the market beyond the few locations with the high, steady winds that kiteboarding requires today.

While understanding the physics of wind was essential for building the kiteboarding model, familiarity with the sensation of kiteboarding also proved critical.

“The physical touch enabled me to reason about it in a meaningful way,” says Zimoch, who by now has gone kiteboarding with other team members along the beaches of Nahant, Massachusetts. “I can sit at my desk and think back to what it feels like when the kite pulls you over, and how it reacts. That’s very helpful.”

Catch of the day
Not long after the group returned from Hawaii, Hosoi received an intriguing proposal from Okuma, a manufacturer of high-performance fishing gear. The company had heard of STE@M through Patagonia and wanted to work with MIT to design better reels for deep-sea fishing. One day in September, it chartered a boat off the coast of Cape Cod and hosted Hosoi, three other faculty members, and Blair. “We all caught fish,” Hosoi says. “I went home and fried up a bunch of bluefish, and they left us a duffel bag full of reels.”

Amos Winter, SM ’05, PhD ’11, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, had gone fishing as a kid but hadn’t had much experience since. But the boat trip got him thinking, and he took the bag of reels home for closer inspection. While playing around, he accidentally dropped one, breaking the sleek design into pieces. Ever the engineer, he took the opportunity to completely dismantle the reel to understand how it worked. Then he quickly drafted a design review for the company. Finding that the load on some of the die-cast parts made the reel susceptible to breaking, he suggested changes that may make it stronger and more bendable, such as replacing some of those parts with plastic. He also recommended a way to stiffen the spinner (which reels in the line) by changing its geometry.

“I continued talking with them, and we put together a consulting project, which I think is a pretty good first date,” Winter says.

One of the challenges he plans to tackle is corrosion. Deep-sea fishing involves exposure to harsh weather and salt water, which can clog and corrode a reel. Equipment can also break down from the heat that is generated by pulling in, say, a 400-pound tuna. Winter will work with the company to design a more corrosion-resistant reel that carries loads more easily—meaning an angler would need less force to bring in a catch.

Rise of a downhill design
While most students learn of STE@M through their professors or classmates, junior Valerie Andersen found out about the program through her grandparents. Andersen, who practically grew up on skis, is an alpine racer on the MIT ski team. Her grandparents mailed her a news article about the Turtle Ridge Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller. The organization was developing a new version of the monoski that disabled people use—a single ski with a small seat attached. The foundation intended to design a model that would perform better and cost less than existing models.

monoski test
Cameron Shaw-Doran tests out the new monoski design that MIT researchers are developing through STE@M.

The article mentioned an MIT researcher collaborating on the design: Karl Iagnemma, SM ’97, PhD ’01, principal research scientist in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and a member of STE@M. Andersen quickly sought out Iagnemma and joined the team.

Although Andersen had trained briefly alongside the U.S. Paralympic ski team as a sophomore, she had never used a monoski and wouldn’t have been able to tell if a design tweak caused any measurable improvement in performance. That valuable feedback came from Cameron Shaw-Doran, director of R&D at the foundation and a competitive adaptive skier. In 1997, Shaw-Doran, who’d been a skier since the age of two, was in a car accident that paralyzed him from the chest down. Miller, a lifelong friend, helped him through his recovery, and Shaw-Doran eventually returned to skiing, exploring the various monoskis on the market.

The main obstacle in most designs, Shaw-Doran found, was an inadequate suspension, which caused him to bounce too much as he streaked down a trail. “If I could find someone to design a shock that can do what Bode Miller’s knees can do, I would be a multibillionaire,” he jokes.

He and Iagnemma hope to integrate an improved suspension system into their monoski design. So far, the prototype is lighter than other commercial designs, and its slightly shifted footplate decreases the chance that the ski’s tip will hit a rock.

Shaw-Doran tested the new ski on Mount Hood in Oregon and says he felt “very connected” to it. “I can only move from my chest up. If any of that movement is lost in the transfer to the ski, I’m losing energy,” he says. “So it was an incredibly good feeling.”

In December, Shaw-Doran took the monoski to Colorado, where he competed for a place on the U.S. national adaptive alpine ski team and the Paralympic alpine ski team. He says that working with MIT has also sparked an interest in engineering.

“Working with aluminum, steel, and titanium, and understanding how soft aluminum is compared to steel, and the amount of vibrations transferred through it—I would love to learn more,” he says.

More spokes for the hub
Hosoi hopes STE@M will establish MIT as a resource for innovation across the athletics industry. She is looking to add more spokes to STE@M’s hub and is in discussions with Nike and Red Bull about partnerships. More industry partners, after all, could benefit students looking to pursue careers in sports technology.

In the end, Hosoi says, the goal of the program is to help students channel their passions.

“We’re showing people ways they can apply their technical expertise to things they’re really excited about,” she says. “I want that kind of energy to be permeating STE@M.”

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