‘World first for squash coaching’ as researchers develop robot instructor

18 Aug 2021

The robot coach in action. Image: Heriot-Watt University

The National Robotarium in Edinburgh is creating the world’s first robot squash coach to make one-on-one sessions more affordable and accessible.

Professional coaching can do wonders for sports performance. Having an instructor watch your technique and deliver advice saves time, effort and energy. For many, however, having a personal coach is not always an option.

Researchers at the National Robotarium in Scotland hope to change this. Hosted by Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, the facility is working on developing a robot that will provide friendly feedback to squash players.

The robot will be capable of delivering 12 coaching strategies in training sessions that will be adjusted with real-time data. The robot squash coach will deliver these strategies while providing feedback and helpful tips.

The set-up currently involves using a motion sensing racket and a robot that is interpreting data from the racket and providing the real-time feedback. The project is in collaboration with industry partner Racketware, which is providing the motion tracking sensors for the rackets as well as the interfacing technology for the robot.

The robot squash coach monitoring performance. Image: Heriot-Watt University

“We want to discover if robotics can complement and support the activities of a human coach, bridging the gap between in-person coaching sessions [and] when an individual sportsperson is conducting solo practice,” said Martin Ross from Heriot-Watt University.

“Robots have been used in other sports, but we believe this is a world first for squash coaching. We are looking forward to sharing results on whether a robot can improve different aspects of a player’s game and increase their motivation for solo practice. This is particularly relevant during recent lockdown periods as indoor coaching was suspended.

“Additionally, we are observing the human response to a robot coach, assessing whether machine-led coaching strategies and words of encouragement are accurately timed and positively received.”

Testing began in July 2021 at Scotland’s national performance centre for sport on the Heriot-Watt University campus. The project aims to run until March 2022.

Dr Paul Mellor, founding director of Racketware, also highlighted that while solo practice is of great benefit to players of all levels, coaching sessions can be an expensive undertaking.

“That’s why we’re excited about this project,” he said. “It has the capacity to push the frontiers of how motion sensor technology can be applied to racket sports and explore the area of robotic coaching with motion sensor data to develop products, like ours, that make squash coaching accessible to more people.”

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

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