When canoeing meets engineering – Canoe Slalom 4.0

KUKA colleague Thomas Schmidt combines the know-how of a canoe slalom course designer with the technical knowledge of an engineer and the view of an athlete – and developed an innovative measuring system for canoeing this way.

In 2000, Thomas Schmidt won the gold medal in the canoe slalom at the Olympic Games in Sydney, thereby crowning his competitive career. At the same time, he studied mechanical engineering and completed degree in engineering. In his free time, he combines his interest for highly complex technical procedures with his passion for whitewater racing, and he developed a system intended to significantly reduce incorrect decisions in Olympic canoeing.

In his work at KUKA, Thomas Schmidt is a key account manager for sales and distribution in the Aerospace business unit responsible for German customers such as Airbus and Premium Aerotec. As a key account manager, he is also the point of contact for new projects and procurement measures, as well as dealing with all kinds of problems.

Reducing the error rate

Even in his leisure time he works on a solution to big problems, perfecting the whitewater slalom. In this discipline, the competitor has to paddle through gates each consisting of two rods, without touching them. Contact with them results in penalty seconds which are added to the canoer’s time.

Unfortunately, there are frequently incorrect decisions because the rods are moved by splashing water or wind. Thomas Schmidt experienced this once or twice each season during his active career. He says he knows of cases where these types of incorrect decisions led to the end of a career. That’s why he is working with friends to produce a system with sensors that can differentiate between real contact and the wind or water. “I wanted to achieve the fairest and most objective evaluation, while not changing the characteristics of the sport. Gate rods are suspended from ropes. This means they function as artificial obstacles alongside whitewater features made of rocks and corresponding flow conditions,” the KUKA colleague explains. The system is built into the rod because he did not want to lose these features at any cost. Nothing can be seen from the outside. The electronic system records the acceleration values in the event of contact. The different kinds of contact can be differentiated from one another via machine-based learning using a neural network that is trained with acceleration models. Similarly to intelligent robots which are trained with procedures or certain objects that they need to differentiate.

Everything started with a few simple tests involving acceleration sensors at the German Canoeing Association, which were actually used for quite different purposes. Together with one of the sports scientists at the Olympic center in Bavaria, he started to gather data from the gate rods fitted in the ice channel in Augsburg. Very significant differences were apparent in the data analysis depending on the contact. Then, working as team comprising Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, the University of Ulster, the Olympic center in Bavaria and Thomas Schmidt, ideas were gathered, primary investigations conducted and ultimately four prototypes were built.

Extensive knowledge

His years of experience in the discipline mean that Thomas Schmidt knew everything needed to develop this type of a system. In the past eight years, he was a member of the technical slalom commission of the World Canoeing Association. This commission works on adapting the rules to the requirements of the sport, and is thus shaping the development of the international sporting activity. As an Olympic discipline, whitewater slalom has to follow the requirements of the Olympic Committee. Alongside his function on the commission, Thomas Schmidt was active as a course designer at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. His task, together with a colleague, was to design the course. The course had to meet several requirements. First of all, it had to be sufficiently challenging so as to challenge even the best canoers, and secondly it should not demand too much of the weaker competitors. In addition, the whole thing should look as impressive as possible on television while still allowing the officials to carry out their assessments fairly. This KUKA colleague combines the expertise of a course designer with technical knowledge and the vantage of a competitor – which puts him in the best position to decide whether the system is suitable for the sport.

The dream of olympic gold

Schmidt himself started competitive sports in 1985, and from 1992 onwards he competed as an elite athlete in canoe slalom. The highpoint of his career was winning the gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Only a year before that, it did not look as if he would even be able to take part. A serious shoulder injury prevented him from competing for a relatively long time. By the time of the races in Augsburg, when athletes for the German Olympic team were selected, he had recovered to a certain extent. At the time, he was still registered as injured and did not even have a coach. However, the former national coach agreed to come out of his retirement and travel from Hamburg to Augsburg every weekend to train with him. And he succeeded in qualifying. In the time following, he studied, trained and underwent physical therapy. He always placed in the top five in competitions, achieving top times but always receiving penalty seconds due to contact with the rods. He himself says: “At that time, I was always good, but never the best.” From that point on, he and his trainer concentrated on reducing the error rate. And this proved successful in the Olympics, when he took the gold medal with zero error points. “It was an unbelievable feeling to take part in the Olympic Games, first and foremost actually having the opportunity to participate. Winning the gold medal was an incredible feeling,” he remembers.

Thomas Schmidt hung up his paddle in 2004, retiring from competitive competitions. “Today, I only take to the water in my spare time if the weather is right,” he explains. At present, trials are ongoing on the four prototypes that were developed in order to prove the system can be implemented and functions effectively. If everything goes well, Thomas Schmidt will soon be back at the Olympic Games with his sensitive gate rods.

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