University of Calgary

Making a safer bobsleigh track

December 2, 2010

Making a safer bobsleigh track

By Leanne Yohemas

Louis Poirier uses radar to help shape his PhD thesis on ice friction in sport. Photo credit: Riley BrandtLouis Poirier, at Canada Olympic Park, uses radar to help shape his PhD thesis on ice friction in sport. Photo credit: Riley BrandtLouis Poirier is trying to figure out how to make a better bobsleigh track–one that’s fast, yet safe.

Poirier, a University of Calgary graduate student, and his team of researchers plan to use radar to gather data as world-ranked bobsleigh athletes careen down tracks at up to 130 km/hr during a World Cup race taking place at Canada Olympic Park this week.

Researchers will be using radar to clock the athletes’ speeds at a variety of locations along the run. This is part of a data-gathering exercise that will help Louis shape his PhD thesis on ice friction in sport.

“As Canadians we love to play on ice and as athletes, we like to go fast. But not much is known about the ice friction,” says Poirier, a former member of the national development bobsleigh team. “My research will ultimately help design safer tracks.”

Poirier points out that the death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run at the 2010 Olympics was “atypical and likely didn’t occur because of the design of the track.” Still, Whistler’s track recently underwent structural changes in order to make the run less prone to crashing. Poirier says the current models used to build bobsleigh tracks aren’t accurate.

Previous models for ice friction are determined by measuring sled times at only six points along the track. It doesn’t take into account the sled speed or the g-force experience in curves. This week we will measure sled acceleration at four different speeds and attempt to determine if the ice friction varies with velocity.”

His research involves the physics of ice. Much is unknown about the finer details but anyone who drives in winter certainly understands the impact. When it’s icy, the coefficient of friction is low and you slide longer after you slam on the brakes. When conditions are dry, the co-efficient is high. Learning more about how bobsleigh runners act on ice at various angles, corners and speeds will help design better bobsleigh tracks.

For his research, Poirier designed and built bobsleigh runners to certain specifications and has been testing them out in more controlled environments. He says he has gathered some good data that has shown him that the current models could be flawed. Now, at the World Cup races in Calgary, he wants some data from the real track with athletes at the top of their game.

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