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Students Assist in Quest for Olympic Gold

Israeli Skeleton Team Gets Help Preparing for 2014 Winter Games

UMass Lowell Image
From left, Patrick Mulhern, Richard Poillucci and David Ferber of the UMass Lowell Skeleton Capstone Group present their findings on improving the aerodynamics of a skeleton sled during the 15th annual Student Research & Community Engagement Symposium in April.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

During the Olympics, athletes from all over the world strive to go faster, higher and stronger. This is especially true for the high-speed winter sport of skeleton racing, where a few hundredths-of-a-second advantage can mean the difference between winning and losing the games’ coveted gold medal.

Unlike luge, where one or two athletes slide down a frozen bobsled track face up and feet first, skeleton racing involves only one person balancing on a small, rectangular sled while lying face down and head first. The skeleton sled, made of a steel and fiberglass frame, has no brakes or steering mechanism — the racer controls the sled by shifting his head and shoulders. Racers can experience forces up to five times that of gravity and reach top speeds of up to 80 miles an hour, with their chin and toes positioned just inches above the ice.

Engineering a Win

A group of mechanical engineering students advised by Asst. Profs. David Willis and Stephen Johnston is putting their engineering skill to work helping the Israeli Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) team prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The team heard about the University’s research capabilities and contacted Willis last year. The students took on the skeleton project for their senior capstone research, working closely with skeleton racer Brad Chalupski and Chad Omweg, a sled designer associated with the IBSF.

“We conducted research on how to improve the aerodynamic properties of the sled,” says Richard Poillucci, who graduated in May and is now pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. 

“We designed and built a scaled-down wooden model of the sled that would fit inside the campus’s wind tunnel to test the sled and optimize its design to reduce drag,” he says. “We also constructed a moving floor to make the boundary conditions more realistic and improve the accuracy of the test results.”

“UMass Lowell brings a level of resource to the Israeli skeleton program that was just a pipe dream two years ago,” says Omweg.

“Aerodynamics is a major factor in a gravity sport,” he says. “Unlike motor sports, a skeleton athlete can’t just step on the gas pedal to go faster, so any gain in aerodynamic efficiency is a bonus for the entire length of the race. In a sport that is measured to the hundredth of a second, every bit truly counts.”

Challenging the Rules of the Game

Omweg says the collaboration with UMass Lowell is a first for the IBSF and, to his knowledge, the first occurrence of skeleton technology being incorporated into an educational format. 

“Many nations hire commercial engineering firms to design and build their equipment,” he says. “The Germans maintain a staff of three full-time engineers and a machinist, making UMass Lowell a huge boon to the IBSF in the international ‘arms race’ of sliding sport.”

Omweg adds that the students’ test results on the two sled designs he submitted will direct future sled development, and of course, challenge the rule book.

“We are going in a direction never considered by the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation — the sport’s ruling body — and our designs need to be tested and massaged to comply with existing rules,” he says. “Without UMass Lowell’s testing and accurate results, we would be working blind.”

In addition to Poillucci, other members of the UMass Lowell Skeleton Capstone Group included Jeffrey Brighenti, David Ferber, Michael Kronhaus, Patrick Mulhern, Daniel Murphy, Jessica Natsios, Michael Strain and Ryan Wolff. 

A Record of Service to the Community

This is not the first time that UMass Lowell has provided service to groups in need of technical assistance. For example, when members of the U.S. Paralympics men’s sled hockey team needed help with the plastic components on their sleds prior to the Winter Paralympic Games in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the faculty and students of the Plastics Engineering Department were happy to offer assistance. They designed and fabricated on campus custom-made plastic seats and glides for the sleds. The U.S. team won the gold medal at the 2002 games.

Also, meteorology students in the Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department participated in this year’s 116th Boston Marathon by providing live weather monitoring along the route of the 26.2-mile race. Begun in 1897 and organized by the Boston Athletic Association, the Boston Marathon is the world’s most prestigious and oldest annual marathon, attracting nearly 30,000 runners from around the world each year.