Sonar Enhanced Treadmill Emulates Real Experience of Walking, Running, Jogging

Many of us who attend gyms or own our own treadmills don’t look forward to their use. The experience can be awkward – from programmed pace and elevation changes or the jarring nature of simply trying to change one’s pace – treadmills, while convenient, don’t offer a realistic experience.

At the Ohio State University exercise researchers think they have this inconvenience of this modern convince figured out. They’ve developed a treadmill that uses sonar to automatically adjust the speed of the treadmill based on how far back the running is on the treadmill. If one slows down and moves toward the back the treadmill slows down, likewise if one speeds up and moves forward the treadmill increases in speed.

The new treadmill was first revealed by its creators, Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Assistant Professor of Northern Kentucky University Corey Scheadler (former OSU graduate student) in a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.

Perhaps most interestingly, the duo used everyday ingenuity and widely available products to build their prototype. They began with an everyday sonar range finder, which is used to measure the distance between an object and the sonar device. They attached it to a micro-controller and a computer, which was connected to the circuits in the treadmill.
The sonar is set up behind the treadmill and aimed at the runner’s back, just between the shoulder blades.

When the runner is in the center of the running belt (measured from front to back), the speed of the treadmill stays the same. If the sonar senses that the runner is running further forward, that tells the device the runner is picking up speed and the sonar microcontroller sends a signal to the treadmill to speed up the belt in varying increments of speed. The speed increases until the runner returns to the middle of the belt.

If the sonar senses the runner is getting closer to the device, a signal tells the treadmill to slow down until the runner returns to the middle.

While some gym owners are probably impatiently awaiting a commercial version of this treadmill, researchers see its value as a data collecting device in the realm of exercise science.

Weird Science: The Way We Walk

In 2000, charity participants took the first walk over the newly opened London Millennium Footbridge. As they walked their feet synchronized and the natural side-to-side motion caused the bridge to sway—much to the dismay of the walkers. Officials closed the footbridge until 2002 while they made modifications to stop the swaying.

Obviously the charity participants were frightened, but in a sense they brought it on themselves: because walking on a swaying surface takes about 5% less energy than walking on a stationary surface.

Ohio State University researchers wanted to look into the human behavior side of this equation. Why is it that, consciously or unconsciously, the charity participants fell into the same way of walking and kept walking that way as the bridge swayed beneath them?

The study found that when a few people walked on such a surface as the bridge, the optimal way to walk was without shaking it. Add enough people and the group will make the bridge sway to lower the group’s energy cost.

The research team is trying to discover a complete theory of why we walk the way we do. Unsurprisingly they found that stability is always the first concern, but the next priority is conserving energy despite the situation. The team has jokingly named it “the principle of maximum laziness” as their working theory suggests people usually adjust things like cadence or length and width of strides to save even a tiny it of energy.


Jody Victor