Olympic based research from NASA: Wind tunnel testing of fabrics for swimsuits!

Ok, my first post isn't directly about Microsoft Research, but I though that this would be pretty cool, and I get to use the word Olympics a lot in this blog.  I realize that using the word Olympics is a way to cheat on the search engines, this does lead into my general theme of this blog.  So for the next few days I will be writing about research and it's impact on the Olympics.  I may even attempt to use the word Olympic in every sentence, maybe not.  Also, there is a picture of Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, which since it was on the NASA page, I guess I can place it here...    The guy on the left Steve Wilkinson (left) with Michael Phelps               Steve Wilkinson (left) with Michael Phelps

First of all, this is very cool, NASA has a video at this site: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/2008-0630-swimsuit.html (can't embed it in my blog), and it just shows the technician setting up the wind tunnel with the fabric.  But the article is interesting.  Are improved fabrics making swimmers faster?  Since I swim a great deal in the Ocean this is interesting to me, could I go further with improved fabric on my swimsuit or wetsuit.  Another question is this: is the helping the swimmers to break records?  From this quote, it looks like NASA has been doing testing on the fabrics:

"Swimmers around the world are breaking records this year like never before, including at the recent U.S. Olympic trials. Some attribute it to extensive training as athletes prepare to compete at this summer's games in Beijing. Others say one factor may be a new swimsuit … a space-age swimsuit made of fabric tested at NASA. "

How does a wind tunnel work?  The wind tunnel can be set-up so that air can be used instead of water.  A big fan is use to blow air through the tunnel (not shown in figure), the air speed at one end is measured and then the trailing speed is measured on the other side of the fabric.  The air speed would be modified in a measured manner and the air mass could be calculated. 


So how do you use software to evaluate your findings? There now I can talk about Microsoft stuff, if not   research, but maybe not the Olympics or Michael Phelps.  The Air Flow would come out of a tube that is called the Contraction Tube, to help speed up the air flow.  In the case of the measurements for the fabric, I would design the tunnel to measure the speed before the fabric and then after.  You could use microphones to measure the air speed, and there are some other ways that you could measure it as well.  The air has to be very dry or the fabric would get wet. 

Now, we can start talking about software, and that is what Microsoft makes.  How do you collect the airspeed data? You will need to do so to determine the roughness of the fabric.  To collect the airspeed data, you could modify the wind tunnel and use an airfoil, the airfoil would have lift, the air flow would cause the airfoil to lift up.  If you had a really smooth fabric, the ability for the airfoil to lift would be changed.  That way you wouldn't need any software to determine smoothness of the fabric, but...  It would not be as accurate as using multiple datapoints provided by software.  The airfoil would vary, and you might have problems with getting the fabrics to lay down wrinkle free.  You could use the Visual Studio 2008 Express product to do your data collection. 

Fabric used be the only material that covered the wings and fuselage of aircraft, for example the Wright Flyer, so NASA doing these measurements is historically something that maps to their aeronautical tradition.   image

So what would the data sensor system look like?  I will use words here, (reference: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/WindTunnel/wandering_windtunnel.htm)

Since this is a low pressure wind tunnel you would need to measure, and this would lead to a determination of the roughness of the fabric:

  • Dynamic pressure
  • Static pressure
  • Total pressure
  • Temperature
  • Turbulence

To be able to better understand how a wind tunnel is built you should visit the web site: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/WindTunnel/wandering_windtunnel.htm.

If you are interested in this type of work, you should consider taking classes in high school that are oriented toward physics and related math.  Knowledge about this type of engineering can also be used in game design, software engineering and development, aircraft design, RC Model design.  If you are in college, talk to the engineering department or school advisor.

And darn it, the only research that Microsoft has that uses Wind Tunnels is from 1995, and looks kind of out of date, but if you want to take a look at it, the url is:

Let me know if you have any questions about engineering or Microsoft software. :)