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  • Troy Flanagan

From Space to Sport: Lessons from the Aerospace Industry

Aerospace Engineers make major breakthroughs in science and technology. They are the most creative group amongst the engineering disciplines. When it comes to sport, the aerospace industry has made significant contributions. These include giving us GPS/inertial tracking technology, new bicycle design, boat design, race car design, suit design and data analytics.

In the past, when I watched aerospace engineers make breakthroughs in America’s Cup Boats, F1 motor racing cars and track bicycle designs, I often wondered - how on earth did they came up with their designs? Where did they start and what was their approach?

I got my first insight into their approach when I began my PhD studies at RMIT University Aerospace. Lachlan Thompson and Ian Bates drew their approach to innovation on the back of a napkin in a restaurant on Lygon Street in Carlton. That lesson changed the course of my career and my approach to innovation. I will do my best to explain it below.

Here is the way they make major breakthroughs:


Don't continue to do what you're doing. Don't do more of the same. Don't make small incremental steps in your work. You'll have a nice career, but simply doing more of the same will not significantly change the game.


Don't go way out into the future and work on future technologies that nobody is asking for and maybe never will. It will have minimal impact.


Instead of the two approaches above, simply stand in the future. Imagine what it is like and how you would like to do something in the future. Then work out what science and technology barriers are stopping that future from happening RIGHT NOW. It's the focus on solving these barriers where the big breakthroughs are. By solving them, you quickly advance the field and take away things that are holding the industry back. The figure below demonstrates this concept:

So here are a few examples of barriers that I have worked on:

When designing Olympic ski jumping suits for the U.S ski team with Prof David Mainwaring and his group at RMIT University, we worked out a novel new way to scan an athlete’s body, theoretically wrap it in fabric and study how it flies in CFD. This enabled us to evaluate designs before they were used.

In the 1999, Jeremy Oliver, Kendall Hook and I developed the first working miniature inertial tracking system for sport using accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers. The prototypes we developed demonstrated for the first time that players could be tracked inside stadiums with high precision. This work kicked off a whole tracking technology boom in elite and professional sport.

At the US ski team I did hundreds of wind tunnel experiments. I developed a novel way to study different fabrics in a controlled and repeated way. This work unlocked a new understanding on what makes fabrics more aerodynamic and dispelled a number of myths associated with downhill skiing suits.

This aerospace approach to innovation is a common theme on this blog and a common theme in my approach to improving team performance. Try it out. Imagine the future!

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