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Anyone For Tennis?

Alison Cooke is passionate sport and engineering. She was lucky enough to find a way of combining the two when she carried out her PhD project into the design of shuttlecocks. The project was that the plastic shuttlecocks, which were produced from the mid-1950s onwards, never had the same performance as the expensive feathered variety used by the professionals. Alison's remit was to discover why. "There is actually a connection between shuttlecocks and aeroplanes." She explains, "They both rely on aerodynamic theory and the way of measuring this, using wind tunnels, is similar for both." Alison's work resulted in a new design of shuttlecock which more closely mimics the flight of the expensive feathered variety, and an injection moulding plant designed to produce it.

Since this work was completed in the mid 90s, Alison has been looking at ways applying this type of engineering expertise to other sports. "Technological advances have quite often changed the history of sport, but usually in a very uncontrolled way. You only have to look at what is happening to tennis at the moment with the introduction of new rackets. Changes in racket design have been partly responsible for the speeding up of the game. The governing bodies are now considering changes to ball design to slow the pace again. We are setting up a Sports Engineering Group, with the aim of working alongside the governing bodies of various sports, so that they can more readily understand changes in equipment design rather than have technology lead the sport. It is important that designers, researchers, manufacturers, players and governing bodies all work together on these issues.

Real tennis is one of the sports that is already benefiting from the work of the group. At present, real tennis balls are hand-made by the professionals, the time taken being around 45 min per ball. A manufactured ball which would perform in the same way would be a very welcome product. Researchers in the Sports Engineering group have now come up with a prototype, which is judged to be '80% there' in terms of performance, as a result of recent trials. Another design loop is planned to correct certain aspects which will improve the design even further.

As well as understanding and improving the performance of sports equipment, the Sports Engineering group is also committed to providing user friendly guides on how to choose equipment. Current projects also include the design of bicycles, lawn tennis balls, surfboards and Formula 1 cars.

More details can be found on the web site at: http://www-edc.eng.cam.ac.uk/sectors/sports.html
or by contacting Dr Alison Cooke: 01223 882072, e-mail: ajc18@eng.cam.ac.uk

number 8, December '99 back | contents | previous | next