John McPhee

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14 years, 176 days

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Recently, my research team at the University of Waterloo was approached by Mark Ideson, the skip for the Canadian Paralympic men’s curling team, about developing a curling end-effector, a device to give wheelchair curlers greater control over their shots. A gold medalist and multi-medal winner at the Paralympics, Mark has a passion to see wheelchair curling performance improve and entrusted us to assist him in this objective. We previously worked with Mark and his team on a research project to model the wheelchair curling shot and help optimize their performance on the ice. The end-effector project was the next step in our partnership.

The use of technology in the sports world is increasing rapidly, allowing us to better understand athletic performance. We are able to gather new types of data that, when coupled with advanced engineering tools, allow us to perform more in-depth analysis of the human body as it pertains to specific movements and tasks. As a result, we can refine motions and improve equipment to help athletes maximize their abilities and performance. As a professor of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo, I have overseen several studies on the motor function of Paralympic athletes. My team focuses on modelling the interactions between athletes and their equipment to maximize athletic performance, and we rely heavily on Maple and MapleSim in our research and project development.

The end-effector project was led by my UW students Borna Ghannadi and Conor Jansen. The objective was to design a device that attaches to the end of the curler’s stick and provides greater command over the stone by pulling it back prior to release.  Our team modeled the end effector in Maple and built an initial prototype, which has undergone several trials and adjustments since then. The device is now on its 7th iteration, which we felt appropriate to name the Mark 7, in recognition of Mark’s inspiration for the project. The device has been a challenge, but we have steadily made improvements with Mark’s input and it is close to being a finished product.

Currently, wheelchair curlers use a device that keeps the stone static before it’s thrown. Having the ability to pull back on the stone and break the friction prior to release will provide great benefit to the curlers. As a curler, if you can only push forward and the ice conditions aren’t perfect, you’re throwing at a different speed every time. If you can pull the stone back and then go forward, you’ve broken that friction and your shot is far more repeatable. This should make the game much more interesting.

For our team, the objective was to design a mechanism that not only allowed curlers to pull back on the stone, but also had a release option with no triggers on the curler’s hand. The device we developed screws on to the end of the curler’s stick, and is designed to rest firmly on the curling handle. Once the curler selects their shot, they can position the stone accordingly, slide the stone backward and then forward, and watch the device gently separate from the stone.

For our research, the increased speed and accuracy of MapleSim’s multibody dynamic simulations, made possible by the underlying symbolic modelling engine, Maple, allowed us to spend more time on system design and optimization. MapleSim combines principles of mechanics with linear graph theory to produce unified representations of the system topology and modelling coordinates. The system equations are automatically generated symbolically, which enables us to view and share the equations prior to a numerical solution of the highly-optimized simulation code.

The Mark 7 is an invention that could have significant ramifications in the curling world. Shooting accuracy across wheelchair curling is currently around 60-62%, and if new technology like the Mark 7 is adopted, that number could grow to 70 or 75%. Improved accuracy will make the game more enjoyable and competitive. Having the ability to pull back on the stone prior to release will eliminate some instability for the curlers, which can help level the playing field for everyone involved. Given the work we have been doing with Mark’s team on performance improvements, it was extremely satisfying for us to see them win the bronze medal in South Korea. We hope that our research and partnership with the team can produce gold medals in the years to come.


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