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High-Tech Tumbling

A new robot is helping judges score gymnastics

Photographs by Jeremy White/Composite image by Sergio Pecanha & Jon Huang/The New York Times/Redux (Simone Biles)

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles does a backflip and 2½ twists through the air in 2016. A new robot can track these movements in real time.

Gymnast Simone Biles bounds down the mat, tumbles, and launches off a springboard. She plants her hands on an apparatus called a vault, then flips and twists through the air. She sticks the landing! Gymnastics routines like this one are scored by a panel of eight judges. They award points for technique, artistry, and difficulty. 

The judges have a tough job! Gymnasts move quickly, and judges must score routines seconds after they’re performed. Tiny mistakes—like if an athlete’s legs are at the wrong angle—can be hard to spot. 

The Japanese company Fujitsu has designed a new robot to make judging more accurate. The device, called the judging support system, precisely measures gymnasts’ movements in real time. “Our goal is for gymnasts to receive a fair score,” says engineer Takehiko Ishii, who worked on the robot.

Gymnast Simone Biles runs down a long mat. She tumbles. Then she jumps off a springboard. She plants her hands on a raised bench. It’s called a vault. Then she flips and twists through the air. She sticks the landing! A panel of eight judges score her routine. They award points for skill, creativity, and difficulty.

The judges have a tough job! Gymnasts move quickly. Judges have to give a score seconds after routines are finished. Tiny mistakes can be hard to spot. One example is an athlete’s legs that are at the wrong angle.

But a new robot could help. The Japanese company Fujitsu designed it. The device is called the judging support system. It precisely measures gymnasts as they move. “Our goal is for gymnasts to receive a fair score,” says Takehiko Ishii. He’s an engineer. He worked on the robot.

Beams of Light

The robot is the size and shape of a shoebox. Before a competition, officials use it to create a 3-D picture of each gymnast’s body. To do this, the robot shines lasers, invisible high-energy beams of light, at each athlete. Sensors detect how long it takes the light to bounce off the gymnasts. The robot puts those measurements together to map how each body looks in different positions.

When gymnasts perform routines, the lasers track the location of 18 points on their bodies. From that data, the robot can calculate everything from a jump’s height to the angle of a gymnast’s wrist.  

The device compares these numbers to a set of ideal values. Judges can look at that information to decide on their scores. But soon, this robot may be able to give scores too! 

The robot is the size and shape of a shoebox. Officials use it to create a 3-D picture of gymnasts’ bodies. This happens before a competition. The robot shines lasers at each athlete. The high-energy beams of light bounce off a gymnast. Sensors measure how long this takes. The robot puts the data together. It maps how a person’s body looks in different positions.

Next, gymnasts perform their routines. The robot’s lasers track 18 points on their bodies. The robot uses the data to measure all sorts of movements. They include everything from a jump’s height to the angle of a gymnast’s wrist.  

The device compares these numbers with a set of known values. Those values represent a perfect performance. Judges can use this information to decide on a score. But soon, the robot may be able to give scores too! 

Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

A panel of eight judges give scores for gymnastics routines.

Smart Robot

Engineers designed the judging support system to improve over time. It uses machine learning, technology that allows machines to learn from patterns of information. As the robot gathers more data, it will learn how different movements should be scored. 

Fujitsu’s robot was first used at the 2019 World Gymnastics Competition last October. Mark Williams, one of the coaches for the American men’s team, was excited to see the robot. He thinks the technology will create fairer competition. 

But will robots ever completely replace human judges? Probably not, says computer scientist David Krum. Sports like gymnastics are both athletic and artistic. Art is hard for a computer to judge, he says.

Engineers designed the robot to get better at judging. It uses machine learning. The technology trains a machine to spot patterns. The robot gathers more and more data over time. The information helps the robot learn how moves should best be scored.

Fujitsu’s robot was first used last October. It was at the 2019 World Gymnastics Competition. Mark Williams was excited to see the robot. He’s a coach for the American men’s team. He thinks the technology will make competitions fairer.

But will robots ever completely replace human judges? Probably not, says David Krum. He’s a computer scientist. Sports like gymnastics are both athletic and artistic. Art is hard for a computer to judge, he says. 

The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

This robot uses lasers to track points on gymnasts’ bodies during routines.  Judges can look at these measurements to help them determine scores.

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