University of Alabama looks to do for sports technology what Crimson Tide has done for football

University of Alabama looks to do for sports technology what Crimson Tide has done for football
Visitors look over the prototype of the SidelinER medical tent, developed at the University of Alabama. (University of Alabama)

University of Alabama Professor Tim Haskew said it’s a misconception that academics and athletics are at odds with each other.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Alabama’s new Integrative Center for Athletic and Sport Technology (I-CAST) has academics and athletics reading in the same playbook, one that could yield advances in technology that benefit athletes on the playing field and beyond.

“The beauty of the center is it actually provides that platform for getting the people together with the need and the technology, getting them on the same page,” said Haskew, director of I-CAST and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The UA System Board of Trustees approved I-CAST at its June 17 meeting. The center is devoted to developing technologies and applying existing technologies to reduce injury, accelerate recovery from injury, enhance performance and optimize nutrition in performance and recovery.

“A lot of the things are what I call low-hanging fruit,” Haskew said. “There are a lot of things where the technologies and the solutions already exist. They just haven’t been applied to the need that exists in that competitive athletic arena.

“The simple jobs we have are to take those technologies and immediately apply and move them into that field,” he said, noting long-standing collaboration between the engineering and athletic departments. “I-CAST is born out of that collaboration. I-CAST does a lot to make that connection a little more straightforward.”

Many more projects

Jonathan Wingo, associate professor of exercise science and head of the Department of Kinesiology, cited the SidelinER as a product of that collaboration.

The sideline medical tent was a project between UA athletics and engineering students that resulted in a patent-pending technology used by Crimson Tide athletic training and medical staff during the 2015 football season. Less than a year after it was developed, the SidelinER has inspired a spinoff company.

Other projects include:

  • The use of 3-D printing for medical braces and splints.
  • Electronic sensors and computer programs to track health markers, fitness data and stress on the body.
  • Virtual reality environments to improve reflex response.
  • The incorporation of rehabilitation devices into clothing.
  • New programs for injury prevention.

“The application doesn’t stop there, because a lot of workers are more or less athletes in what they’re being asked to do,” Wingo said, citing military, blue-collar workers and emergency personnel. “The hope is that down the road things that come out of the center will not only apply to athletes but also occupational settings.”

Another Gatorade?

Dr. Edward Sazonov, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and I-CAST researcher, is developing a shoe insole to monitor energy output. Accuracy comparisons between this shoe insole technology and commercial fitness trackers showed the insole is better at tracking activity levels. (University of Alabama)

I-CAST brings together 22 people from across campus with a passion in this niche topic who already are collaborating on innovative research. A variety of novel ideas were proposed, and several projects are underway, including new collaborations with internal and corporate partners.

The new center brings to mind research done decades ago at the University of Florida that yielded a sports energy and hydration drink that came to be known as Gatorade.

“They’ll never let us forget where it came from, will they?” Wingo quipped.

Haskew said such a corporate boon is not the specific aim. But, he added, “there’s nothing to say that’s not a possibility.”

“That’s part of this whole idea of academic endeavor, of study, of research, development,” he said. “We’re not setting out to have that humongous breakthrough; the target is to address the problems at hand. If that happens, it’s a wonderful benefit, but this is the proper platform for things like that to happen.”

The best care for athletes

The newly approved center drew praise from those in the Athletics Department. Before taking a medical leave recently, Athletics Director Bill Battle said he is grateful for the initiative, noting the cooperative spirit of several university departments.

“Not only will this technology and academic research improve performance and reduce the chances of injury for our student athletes,” Battle said in a statement, “it also provides a tremendous example of our ongoing efforts to give our student athletes the best care possible during their time here.”

Jeff Allen is the assistant athletics director for sports medicine and head athletic trainer for football. He said those in sports medicine and athletic training often see needs that spark ideas to improve performance, injury prevention and recovery.

“By partnering with professors and students researching athletic health and performance, we can realize benefits for our student athletes swiftly while adding to the knowledge base in a wide range of disciplines and applications,” Allen said.

Along with Haskew and Wingo, leadership of the research center includes Elizabeth Hibberd, assistant professor in the Department of Health Science and part of the UA Athletic Training Program; and Ken Fridley, senior associate dean for administration in the College of Engineering, who will serve as I-CAST’s assistant director for technology transfer.

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