Two dragons face off

August 15, 2017 | Sports, Science, Health

Research aims to uncover which paddlers are actually pulling their weight


A decade-long “professional disagreement” between a MacEwan physicist and a kinesiologist is finally on its way to being solved.

Back in 2007, Dr. Orla Aaquist, assistant professor in Physics, joined Dave Kato, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Physical Education Transfer program, on a dragon boat team. Dave had already been with the team for a few years and knew the captain’s strict rules around paddling style. So when he saw a few flaws in technique from his seat behind Orla, he started to jokingly give the physics prof a bit of grief.

“As a kinesiologist, it made sense to me that the biomechanics of the strokes the captain was talking about would generate the greatest amount of force,” says Dave.

But that wasn’t enough evidence for the physicist.

“There were all these rules about where to put the strongest paddlers, how to hold the paddle, how to do the paddling and how to pull to get the maximum progression of the boat through the water,” says Orla. “But I couldn’t see how being a little bit out of sync or splashing a bit would make that much of a difference.”

So he asked (and kept asking) the question, “How do you know?” Several discussions later when everyone conceded that they really didn’t know, Orla started thinking about how to find out.



“You can get a sense of how fast the boat is going and how smooth the ride is by watching, but putting pressure and motion sensors on the paddles, and a flow metre at the front of the boat would actually allow you to quantify what was happening,” says Orla.

But as so often is the case, what sounds simple in principle isn’t actually so in practice. Affordable technology that could help answer the question didn’t exist, so the two profs put the idea in dry dock—until about six months ago.

Now Dave and Orla have teamed up with Dr. Jeffrey Davis, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Science in Engineering Transfer program, whose experience in sensor technology and mechanical engineering is helping them finally answer the decade-old question.

In the Winter 2017 term, the three profs mentored second-year Bachelor of Science student Aassem Askari in an independent research project that involved the initial programming, testing possible locations for the sensors on the paddle and building a prototype. While the initial prototype is promising, it’s also a bit unwieldy—sensors are attached with Velcro and the wires connecting the processor tend to get in the way.

So Mahir Jarif, a first-year engineering student, is taking Aassem’s initial research a step further—printing specialized units to mount sensors directly on the paddle and expanding the system to collect data from multiple paddles at once.


Faculty members Dave Kato, Jeffrey Davis and Orla Aaquist are working with student researchers, including Mahir Jarif (seated), to develop the dragon boat paddle prototype.

It will take time and the work of several more students, but eventually the project will involve outfitting all 20 members of a dragon boat team with custom paddles fitted with the detection system, and mounting another sensor on the front of the boat to measure its progression through the water. 

“As they paddle, we would be collecting data about their strokes, the force of the paddle and the motion of the paddle, so we can tell the team something about how they are working together,” explains Orla. 

In other words, finding out who’s pulling their weight. And the same technology could be used for kayaking, canoeing or rowing—and basically any other water sport that uses a paddle. 

“The technology is actually quite inexpensive,” says Jeff. “Right now the challenge is reducing the size of the prototype so everything fits on the paddle. Once we are able to create a set of interconnected paddles, we may even be able to rent them out to people who want to look at the efficiency of their strokes—which means there’s potential for this project to be revenue generating.”  

But all three profs agree that the biggest benefits of this project go far beyond dollars and cents—or proving who’s right.

“It’s such a great opportunity for undergraduate students to see how research evolves and comes alive,” says Dave. “This isn’t theoretical—they get the chance to actually build something, test it and refine it. And the project is also multidisciplinary, which means that students can see how expertise from different departments comes together.”

It’s one of the biggest benefits Mahir has seen in his experience, so far. “It’s so valuable to see how one simple project can bring so many different ideas and areas of expertise together. You can really see how everything's connected, and learn from different people.”

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