The military has been using aerial drones for years; law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere have experimented with using them to patrol neighborhoods; and recently, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos turned heads by announcing a plan on 60 Minutes for his company to deliver packages with robotic aircraft. In the not-too-distant future, your coach might be able to use a drone to keep an eye on you (and your vital signs) during practice.
How? The AeroTrainer, a drone designed to help coaches and athletes analyze performance by measuring an athlete's speed, distance traveled, body temperature, heart rate and more. The drone would monitor these signals through wearable sensors placed on the athletes and an onboard HD video camera. The system is the idea of Moses Frenck, President and CEO of Mercer Flight Services (Ewing, N.J.), who believes that by monitoring this type of information in real time, the AeroTrainer can help athletes perform better. STACK caught up with Frenck to discuss why he thinks the AeroTrainer can help athletes and how soon he expects to see drones circling athletic fields around the country.
STACK: What is the AeroTrainer, and what does it do?
Moses Frenck: The AeroTrainer is an unmanned aerial system combined with biomechanical sensors that is designed to enhance athletic performance while working to identify and prevent sports injuries. The system not only feeds video of plays and players to coaches and trainers, but it also transmits information about anything that needs to be recorded. It can measure a player's temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and any number of parameters, depending on what sport you're playing.
The unit is highly customizable. For example, for football players, we will be able to see and review head injuries and measure their intensity and frequency in real time. For track runners, the system can conduct running analyses, measuring posture, gait and cadence. The system combines aspects of wearable activity trackers like the Fitbit, Nike Plus or Jawbone, but behaves more actively, transmitting data to a coach or trainer, who would be watching from the sidelines. There are parameters you can set so that, for example, if a player's body heat reached a certain temperature, the coach would receive a warning, and the player would have to come out for a few minutes or more. Instead of having ice baths at the ready for overheated players, the AeroTrainer will warn coaches of imminent heat issues before they happen, so it's actively telling coaches what's going on with their players in real time.
Coaches would also be able to replay video. So if a player has a head collision, the coach can see how it happened and analyze it from a different angle, because [the AeroTrainer would allow him or her] to see it from above or from behind.
STACK: How does the AeroTrainer collect data?
Frenck: Essentially, it's magic. It depends also on the athlete. So for football players or players who wear uniforms, they could use a sensor that is kind of like a tank top that you wear under your uniform. It would place specific sensors on your chest, on your thighs, on your back, on your biceps. For runners, it would be different. You would have to have sensors on your shorts and shoes.
What we are trying to do is not interfere at all with the performance of an athlete. So for example with a sprinter, we don't want to put a heavy sensor in their shoe because it is going to be counterproductive to what they are trying to do. So players won't be required to carry any bulky analysis hardware on their bodies. It would just be the sensors that weigh a couple of grams. They would transmit to the AeroTrainer wirelessly or through Bluetooth, which will transmit data wirelessly to the coaches on the sidelines or to the cloud, so that the players can later log in through the app and download their data.
STACK: What other data would the AeroTrainer track?
Frenck: It can track movement, acceleration, speed and jump height. It can measure your calorie burn, your energy expenditure, your respiration rate and the intensity of your play. If an athlete wanted, [he or she] could wear the sensors like they would wear a FitBit tracker, and can monitor their sleep activity and nutrition. You can go online and type in what you are eating and it tracks what you're eating. So let's say you ate 2,000 calories worth of food that day. Then let's say you go to football practice in the afternoon. It will track how many calories you burn and you will be able to track your nutrition as well.
STACK: What type of hardware is onboard to record all of that data? What makes AeroTrainer work?
Frenck: There are three primary components. First is the aerial platform, which is the aircraft. On the aircraft, there is an HD multi-axis video camera to record and transmit all of the action. And, third, are the biosensors, which communicate with the sensors worn by the athletes. For all of the components—the aerial system, the camera, the biosensors—we are still exploring several different manufacturers right now, and we have not yet settled on any specific ones.
STACK: How did you come up with this idea?
Frenck: At Mercer, we operate a flight academy and an aircraft maintenance business, and to us it seems the future of aviation is unmanned aircraft. We don't feel that it will be mutually exclusive. You are still going to have piloted aircraft out there, but there will be many more opportunities for unmanned aircraft. And I speak at different high schools all the time about aviation. I speak to their aeronautics clubs and science clubs. And some schools have been looking for grants to buy drones, though we try not to call them "drones," because that has a negative connotation.
The way I came up with this idea in particular was that I was talking to some schools who had recently gotten some grants for different projects that they wanted to do, but there wasn't a lot of grant money left over. So, I suggested, why don't they team the science club up with the football team or the athletic department and apply for grants together, cross-marketing their efforts. So then let's say the aeronautics club or the science club, they can work on the flight controls, learning how to use the drones, and in so doing they can help the football team. Then the football team would use the info recorded. So the grant money would be divided between the athletic department and the science department, not just one or the other. That is initially how the idea came up, and since then, we've just been going forward.
Amazon wants [to use drones] to deliver packages, Netflix wants to deliver DVDs, and Dominos is talking about delivering pizza. Some of that may work, some of that may not work. You know, one of the problems is one of the things they have to contend with is weather and wind. The devices would be far away from their initial location, so they'd have to be operated remotely. And the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] right now seems to have issues about remotely piloting aircraft beyond visual range. So, those ideas are a ways down the road.
With a product like [the AeroTrainer], it's not a high-flying system. It flies 12, 15, maybe 20 feet off the ground, max. It doesn't have to go high, and it will always be in close proximity to the athlete or the players. So it will operate within a controlled setting and meet he FAA regulations that the aircraft is not flying high in the air or out of view of the operator. [The AeroTrainer] is a product we can actually use today. We don't have to wait for regulations.
STACK: How much do you think it will cost for a school to purchase one of these?
Frenck: Our intention is to sell [the AeroTrainer] to high schools and colleges for about $2,500. That would include the unit, the ground base station—which is essentially like an iPad—and the sensors. It would depend a lot on how many players we're talking about. On a football team, you have 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense; that's 22 players, plus you have backup players, so the whole team might have 50 people. We haven't really come up with how many sensors would come with the unit, but on average, about $2,500 should be enough to cover the unit, the sensors and the ground station. And we have launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.com to raise funds to donate units to some schools that may not have the money to buy them.
STACK: Are any high schools currently using this product?
Frenck: No. Right now we are in development. In the next few weeks or so, we will announce the names of high schools and colleges that are going to be development partners with us, so that we can test the system with all of the parameters that they may want. There could be things that we may not even be thinking about that a coach or player may want to integrate into this.
STACK: Have you tested the system yet?
Frenck: No, not as a complete system, we haven't. We've only done things separately. We know how the aircraft operates. We have tried the aircraft following players, that sort of thing. And separately, we have put sensors on athletes. But we haven't combined the two yet into a system because we are still building it.
STACK: Since that's the case, when do you foresee the AeroTrainer becoming available to schools?
Frenck: Our hope is to start getting them into the market by this fall, or maybe sooner if we can get some out to high schools. We'd like to see if we can get them out for July or August football practices. Schools will be able to buy the AeroTrainers directly from our site, and we will also have training videos available online.
Find more information on the AeroTrainer here.
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