How fighter jet technology is helping British athletes to Winter Olympics gold

Skeleton key

Amy Williams' Skeleton sled
Amy Williams

As well as helping to hone the skills of the Bobsleigh team, BAES engineers have assisted British Olympians across disciplines as diverse as fencing, wheelchair racing and cycling. One of the most successful fruits of its technology partnership with UK Sport, though, is the skeleton sled that carried Amy Williams to gold medal success in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

BAES started out by looking at the equipment that the British skeleton racers were using, to work out ways in which it could be improved. "We gave quite comprehensive questionnaires to the athletes, got them to discuss the bits they liked about their equipment and what they weren't so keen on, what they struggled with, what they'd prefer," says David Cocksedge, BAES group leader of composites and structures. "That allowed us to build up a picture of where the shortfalls were in their current designs."

The main problem, it transpired, was that the skeleton sleds simply weren't flexible enough. "What they wanted was more freedom to set up the sled as they'd like it," Cocksedge explains. "If a 5ft 5in female athlete and a 6ft male athlete were using the same sled, obviously it wouldn't suit both of them."

Testing times

Working to a tight timescale – "At the end of the day, they're not going to postpone the Olympics if the sled's not ready," says Cocksedge – BAES embarked on a series of exhaustive tests. A sled was kitted out with accelerometers and a data logger to monitor the forces and accelerations it undergoes on a run, while the athletes' steering technique was measured using pressure pads. "Based on that data and their sliding style, we could then tailor the stiffness and characteristics of the sled to suit each athlete, by swapping components within the sled to make it stiffer or more flexible in certain places." BAES also laser-scanned moulds of the athletes' bodies to custom design form-fitting cages to hold them in the sled.

The biggest challenge, though, was psychological. It turns out that a new sled gave the skeleton racers a psychological boost as well as a physical one – and, says Cocksedge, "we had to split that away from the technical aspects, and what actually is making a real difference."

That psychological boost might just have given Britain the edge, mind; with Britain bagging gold medals for the skeleton in both 2010 and 2014, all the investment has clearly paid off.

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