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A Robot To Teach You Technique...

Sep 11, 2012  - Craig Lord

Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have developed a swimming robot modelled on Olympians. Can't see metal replacing flesh in the bouncing world of Bay Watch, though lifeguarding is one of the intended roles for "Swumanoid". 

The other is something that is likely to have Milt Nelms and Shane Gould rushing into the waves off Tasmania screaming "Nooooo…. we are all unique!!": a tool for improving technique.

The point of Michael Phelps, Nelms notes, is that he is Michael Phelps - a unique combination of factors. Copy him and you may miss the best way of doing things for you, another unique combination of factors.

Scientists are currently working on a prototype that can mimic a human swimmer’s whole body motion. Swumanoid can swim freestyle at a speed of 0.64 meters per second - so no threat to Adrian and Co as yet. The robot can also swim backstroke and butterfly but the complexities of breaststroke are beyond the tweak of the research team as yet. A different pair of legs will be required before there's any threat to Van der Burgh and Co.

Swumanoid, researchers say, is intended to measure water resistance and analyse how humans swim - because humans, we're told, would get tired of repeatedly doing the same stroke. That'll be all of you world-class folk out there doing 50 to 90k and more a week then. 

Associate professor Motomu Nakashima is leading the research team, hopes that robots such as Swumanoid will patrol the pools and beaches of the world one day.

Professor Nakashima told reporters: “Since it’s a swimming humanoid, it will be able to help people who face danger out in the water, I believe this may be possible in the future. The first purpose of the robot is to measure the energy output of swimmers.”

The model for the robot was "an unknown Olympic athlete". It will morph into a version made of flexible plastic. Challenges ahead: endurance and something humans are fairly good at: being waterproof.

Meanwhile, it may be something China wishes to consider given recent media reports from Beijing that tell of pools allegedly employing unqualified swimming coaches and thus putting lives at risk.

An investigation by the Beijing Morning Post found that hotels, fitness centres and public pools had employed a number of unqualified coaches and teachers, with adverts for jobs asking only for a lifeguard to perform coaching and teaching duties. The Beijing Life Saving Association told the paper: "A life guard certificate is not enough for a coach. If he doesn't have a coaching certificate, he's not qualified for the job."

On August 21, a 6-year-old boy drowned during a swimming class in Shanghai. He may have vomited, the Shanghai Morning Post reported. The boy's parents questioned the teacher's credentials, while former swimmer Chen Fen told the Beijing Morning Post: "To become a certified coach, one must train for three weeks and pay [about $158] in fees. This is why they are reluctant to sit the test." Three weeks? Well, that should reassure parents.