2014-05-23

Co.Labs

Why This Nascar Team Is Putting RFID Sensors On Every Person In The Pit

A company called Zebra will allow teams to track every turn of the wrench, maximizing speed in the pit and preventing penalties.



To date, Nascar pit crews have relied on videotape and stopwatches to measure pit stops. But no more. Michael Waltrip Racing has announced a partnership with Zebra, makers of MotionWorks, a software package designed to bring RFID tracking technology to nearly every lug-nut on the track. Using technology developed to maximize industrial efficiency, Zebra hopes to lend its experience in manufacturing to the track.

MotionWorks allows the crew to track the pit crew, car, wheel guns, jacks, as well as those things' speed, direction, acceleration, and physical location in real time. And while the technology has yet to be approved for race day, MotionWorks measures pit-stop efficiency in practice runs right now, helping teams measure their performance in ways they couldn't before.

Waltrip Racing car and pit crew

“Every weekend we live and die by pit stops,” says Tom German, chief technical officer of Michael Waltrip Racing. “Every step we can take to make those pit stops faster, evaluate the athletes and make sure that we're choosing and using the right athletes, give them the right training tools so that they can identify where they're strong and where they're weak, and continue to improve those areas, is a benefit to us. The intent is for us to have a better pit stop at the end of the day.”

Measuring The Mechanics

Unlike the NBA's SportVU camera-based, or MLB's X-Ray systems, MotionWorks allows race teams the ability to measure every aspect of their crew's performance, from every angle, without the inconvenience of obstruction--of which there can be quite a bit on pit row. The high-frequency location-based system measures proximity within a 3-D space devoid of line-of-sight limitation.

“The problem is that with videotape, if there is anything blocking, you can’t really know what’s happening," Says Jill Stelfox, general manager of Location Solutions at Zebra. "Every two and a half seconds--lug nut, lug nut, lug nut... Where do they get hung up? Do they have a weak side or a strong side? How do you--really get down to that micro-movement improvement?”

Using an ultrawide band frequency, MotionWorks RFID chips send information--or “blink”--roughly 25 times per second, with a broadcast range of just 1,000 feet. The limited radius allows for even more communication than that, as the chips are capable of blinking 80 times per second.

Waltrip Racing car and pit crew

But these chips aren't just for humans. Waltrip intends to put the chips on just about everything for training purposes in practice. Given the simplicity of the data sent and received, pit crews only need a couple of receivers to capture every bit of information they can think of and process it in roughly 120 milliseconds. When the system is implemented this summer, a 3-D rendering of exactly what's happening during a tire change, for instance, will be available on computer monitors instantly.

So, what took so long?

Getting The Green Light

Originally, Waltrip wasn't even aware that such technological possibilities existed. The majority of tech developed for pit crews was--and still is--video based. But that all changed when Zebra gave a presentation to the race team and showed off MotionWorks' capabilities.

“We have been using this technology in industrial manufacturing for a dozen years,” Stelfox explains, “but it wasn’t until we started working with some sports teams that we started saying 'wait a minute, this could really matter.' Part of it was a technology perception that setting up an active RFID system was complicated. I think we all got stuck in the science and, now that everyone is figuring out that there is no mystery or secret behind the implementation, it’s really taking off. Physically, we put tags that weigh less than nine grams, so you can hardly feel them and they're about the size of the top of your thumb. They're really tiny.”

“It wasn't a technology that was really on our radar,” German admits. “It was a technology that was really more advanced than what I had expected, and had some distinct benefits relative to some of the comparable technologies. At Waltrip Racing here we've done a lot of work with our pit crew in the last couple of years, to build that program, make it stronger. This seems like a natural progression to really add a lot of value to that program.”

During pit stops, where milliseconds are critical and real estate comes at a premium, MotionWorks seems like a no-brainer, with the most immediate application coming down to nuts and bolts. Race teams are assessed huge penalties for loose or missing lug nuts in a race. Officials pull cars off the track and back to pit row to fix the issue, a costly infraction that can derail even the best car. Nascar, however, has yet to approve MotionWorks for competitive uses.

Waltrip Racing car and pit crew

“But in training,” says Stelfox, “where we are trying to refine movement, we intend to have chips on everything, on the wrist, on air guns, on the lug nuts, on the tires so that you can see all the interaction of how that stuff moves together. It’s almost like we are creating a ballet around the movement of how that pit stop was really happening and then once you see it on the computer you can improve it. It’s so orchestrated when you slow it down. You know it’s funny, I’m not sure the pit crew guys want me to call it a ballet. They are very tough guys.”

The Road Ahead

At the outset, the technology will focus on the pit crew specifically, but the applications are endless. Information packets can be carried on the same signal with the proximity measures so, moving forward, even a pit crew member's vitals could be carried across the network in real time and determine a person's biological performance as well.

Building upon the RFID chips' own communication network, Zebra will release new tags in 2015 that have built-in Bluetooth technology that will enable heart monitors and temperature sensors--or any other kind of sensor--capable of the same real-time information transmission. Then, MotionWorks has the potential to alter movement on and off the track. By tracking athletes' vitals, MotionWorks hopes to measure performance in pressure situations versus practice.

“We’ve done some early testing of this and what we see is that, just like taking a test, some athletes train really well and then, when adrenaline gets going in a live game situation, the performance isn’t necessarily the same. The other side of that [some people] don't train great but they perform really well.”

But MotionWorks' contributions could have league-wide implications as well. Says German, “I think we both see this as a long-term, industry-wide, sanctioning-body type of tool. We hope to develop it in our practice arena, and then hopefully we'll see the industry catch on to that, move forward as a whole. Our job right now is to prove out the technology and demonstrate that it's capable of doing everything that we believe it is, and then go on from there.”

[Photos courtesy of Zebra]



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