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    MARCH 2, 2006
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It’s all downhill for engineering prof

LeRoy Alaways’ virtual reality bobsled helps U.S. athletes train for the Winter Olympics

Photo and images courtesy
LeRoy Alaways
The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation uses a “virtual reality bobsled” designed by mechanical engineering faculty member LeRoy Alaways to train athletes for events such as the Olympics.

As the U.S. bobsledders raced down the track in during the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, recently, mechanical engineering faculty member LeRoy Alaways was paying particularly close attention.

That’s because Alaways has helped them make this run — and others at Olympic bobsled tracks around the world — thousands of times, without the athletes ever having to leave upstate New York.

As a graduate student at the University of California–Davis in the late 1990s, Alaways helped design, fabricate and program a “virtual reality bobsled” (VRB) for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF).

“A classmate of mine from my undergraduate and graduate school days had developed a virtual reality bobsled machine for his Ph.D.,” Alaways said. “But he had graduated, and the machine had fallen into disrepair and didn’t function anymore.”

At about this time, the USBSF had expressed an interest in the VRB for training their athletes and asked that a few more be made.

“I was asked to first make the original machine operational, so I went through and figured out how it worked. And since it was in a state of disrepair, I got it working again,” he said.

After installing the machine at Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and the USBSF’s headquarters and training facilities, Alaways began developing an improved VRB, which he and a few other graduate students built from scratch. That machine is at an Olympic training facility in Park City, Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Games.

The VRB simulates everything in a 90-second bobsled run except the lateral G-forces and the cold, said Alaways, who once beat Monaco’s Prince Albert, an Olympic bobsledder, in the VRB. There’s even a monitor outside the VRB where coaches can watch and stop the run at any time to offer feedback to the bobsled drivers.

According to Alaways, bobsledders often don’t get the quality time they need on the practice runs at a track. Much of their time is spend transporting the bobsled, standing in line, and then waiting for the track to clear and officials to get into place — all for a 90-second run. Afterward, they must bring in a truck, load the bobsled into it, and drive it back to the top of the hill, where they begin the process all over again.

“By then, the bobsledders have forgotten everything about the practice run, and that’s when the coach comes over to ask, ‘Why were you high in this turn?’” Alaways said. “The bobsledders then have to try and remember the entire process they went through.”

At events like the World Cup or Olympic trials, bobsledders might only get two practice runs in a day, he said. But the Lake Placid VRB — which featured tracks from Olympic venues at Nagano, Lillehammer, Albertville, Calgary and Salt Lake City — has allowed them to run that particular track hundreds or thousands of times before they even get to the competition.

And how closely does the VRB simulate an actual bobsled?

Alaways said NASCAR racer Geoff Bodine, who became interested in bobsledding, began building racing sleds that including technology such as the accelerometer that is used in stock car racing.

“We’ve compared the movements and data from Bodine’s sleds with our simulator, and they match perfectly,” Alaways said proudly. “So it verified that ours was accurate.”

Because of his work with USBSF, Alaways has taken a run down the Lake Placid track in an actual bobsled.

“I’ve ridden over 100 roller coasters in my life, but the G-forces from the bobsled are just amazing,” he said, noting that a bobsled pulls about five-plus G’s to a roller coaster’s three.

Alaways, who said he’s previously met many of the drivers but doesn’t know anyone on the current Olympic team, returns about once a year to Lake Placid to make sure the VRB remains in good working order for the athletes.

But as the Olympics were starting about three weeks ago, at the request of the USBSF, he dismantled it and moved it from the USBSF to a sports high school in the Lake Placid area so they could train on it and use it in physics experiments.

- By Preston M. Moretz