Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Eve Downing

That’s because the same engineering principles apply to both – what makes a faster airplane also makes a swifter ski. For undergraduates, eager to design and build real products, making a better airplane in a semester is impossible. But making a better tennis racquet is not only feasible, it’s fun.

“The similarities between sporting goods and aerospace products are quite striking. They both use strong, lightweight materials; they must have good aerodynamics; and they both interface with a human being,” says Prof. Ed Crawley, head of the department.

Crawley says nearly half the aero/astro faculty are involved in sports-related research, with projects ranging from baseball bats to windsurfing. Although most began with a personal interest – like the three professors in this story – they soon realized the educational potential for their students. A new Sports Engineering Laboratory opens this fall to provide a place where students and faculty can pursue such projects.

“Kids come to MIT because they want to build things,” says Crawley. “If you give them the opportunity to build better sporting goods, they’re going to be knocking down the door.”

Racquet technology

Prof. Rudrapatna Ramnath has seen a lot of changes in tennis racquets since the days when he was an aspiring professional player. “I grew up with wooden racquets, and there’s no comparison between those and modern racquets,” he says, adding that today’s racquets are made of the same advanced composites as space vehicles.

A specialist in flight guidance and control, Ramnath has also been a central figure in tennis research since the ’70s, when World Tennis magazine first asked him to evaluate racquet performance. He and his undergraduates designed testing methods using radar, infrared beam interruption, and strobe photographyÑtechniques that are now widely used in industry.

“You want a racquet that hits hard and has a lot of power, but that’s vague. How do you quantify those qualities in rigorous physical terms?” says Ramnath. “We have blown away many myths and misconceptions about racquets.”

Having conducted a freshman seminar in sports engineering for many years, Ramnath understands the educational value of sports technology. “Many of the advanced engineering concepts can be understood much more easily in a familiar context like sports,” he says. “If you start students off with the moment of inertia of a lunar excursion module, that’s a bit unfamiliar to them. But if you describe it in the context of sports equipment, their eyes light up.”

Interest in cycling

As an amateur triathlete, Prof. Ian Waitz has an interest in cycling; as an MIT professor, he’s in a position to study the sport from an engineering perspective. Curious about how a rider’s body position affected his speed when the wind was blowing from different directions, Waitz recruited some undergraduates to build a testing setup in the wind tunnel.

What they created was an innovative system for monitoring all aspects of a rider’s performance, including a video image of body position, and feeding that information to the rider on a display attached to his helmet. “The rider can see a picture of himself as he’s riding and also see what his wind drag and power output are,” says Waitz. “It’s a system that could greatly improve training of cyclists.”

“The undergraduates got to see how we went from random brainstorming to specific ideas for setting up the experiment,” says Rich Camilli, a graduate student and former racer who supervised the work. “They applied different engineering principles, including how to budget time and money.”

“Because it’s a fun project, people put more effort into it,” he says. “It’s a labor of love.”

Ski slopes

Like his colleagues, Prof. Larry Young’s interest in ski technology grew out of his own love of the sport. “I was interested in what medicine and engineering could do to identify the cause of ski accidents and determine how equipment could be improved to minimize injury,” says Young, who is a specialist in space bio-medicine.

“I would take students to New Hampshire for a week in January and we would set up a portable video studio on the slope,” says Young, who also moonlighted as a ski patrolman. “We would follow skiers with the video camera, and if they fell, we’d call them over afterwards and interview them and test their bindings. Later, the students and I would review the videotapes.”

Young says the results of these multi-year studies helped manufacturers design safer boots and bindings. “The safety of skiing has improved dramatically since 1970, mostly as a result of better equipment,” he says. “I’m pleased to think the work my undergraduates did with me has saved a lot of suffering.”

“It was a good opportunity for students to see how field research is done,” says Young. “And we definitely had a good time.”

Explore Topics