By Don Phelps
Fully automated timing (FAT) for elementary and high school track and field events with FinishLynx? You bet! Lynx System Developers, Inc. FinishLynx products have been an integral part of the Lisle school district’s successful meet management for over twenty years.
It was both a surprise and an honor when I was given the opportunity to see and operate the FinishLynx timing system at one of my daughter’s track meets back in the early 2000s. I had been volunteering for various meet duties, and that day, some task had me in the press box where, being something of a computer geek, the FinishLynx event screen caught and held my attention. Soon, I was hands-on with the system, performing event capture and evaluations. Little did I know then that more than a decade later, I would still be very much involved in Lisle track meets or that I was about to become a part of this highly effective meet management team.
In Illinois, Lisle has been at the forefront of fully automated timing of track events and continues to evaluate new sports technologies and approaches every year. Some notable milestones include having Illinois’ first polyurethane track, being the first high school to implement FAT, and being the first to use wireless and gunless starting technologies.
For many years, and at meets large and small, FinishLynx has been used to collect and evaluate track results in Lisle. With this product, each meet progresses smoothly and accurately, quantifiable finish data is generated, and each competitor’s time is recorded. Having results for all competitors, not just the first few, as with stopwatch timing, is especially valuable for individual athlete tracking and development and is appreciated by runners and coaches alike.
The FinishLynx Timing System
What is FinishLynx? This system uses a line scan camera to record each athlete as he or she crosses the finish line. With the line scan camera, a very fine slice of an image is taken multiple times in a second. Each of these slices is reproduced in the order it was taken to produce a still image on a computer screen. This linear view is carefully aligned across the track at the finish point. As competitors cross the line, ten thousand or more image slices per second can be recorded; but, more typically, rates of 500 – 2000 per second are used at the elementary and high school level. Even so, this lower scan rate allows for time discriminations of as little as one-thousandth of a second (0.001 seconds). At the start of the event, a unique time value is assigned, and the finish line results are then compared to this start value. This value is electronically recorded by the starter’s device and, when coupled with the line scan results, comprises a Fully Automated Timing (FAT) result.
What are the benefits? Accuracy is foremost. All competitors are evaluated by a common starting time and are not subject to the vagaries of separate stopwatch activations, each of which depends on the individual reaction time of the person holding the stopwatch. The same goes for stopping the watch at the event finish. Another benefit is the ability to go back and review the finish. Lynx provides a method for viewing the relative finish positions and absolute time from the start. These are stored in files and are easy to recall in the future, if needed. In traditional stopwatch timing, you only have one chance to get that click right—which is hard to do, especially if competitors pass in a tightly packed bunch.
The group at Lisle has the privilege of hosting meets not only at its home field but also at a local college stadium and, occasionally, at other venues as well.
The timing setup at home, Wilde Field, is a semi-permanent one. This venue has a permanent camera mounting pole adjacent to the finish line. Atop the pole is a flat mounting plate to which the Lynx camera is clamped for each meet. At the base of the pole is an enclosure with 110V AC power and an RJ-45 Ethernet jack. Both power and Ethernet lines run in conduit back to the press box. This is sufficient to power and communicate with the two cameras used for each event.
The permanent mount atop the camera pole allows us to fixture the camera in such a way that, once aligned, the camera can be removed following an event and replaced later, keeping the alignment task to a minimum. Having the power and communications cables permanently in place speeds set up and removes the liabilities inherent in running cabling where people will pass and possibly trip.
At the base of the pole, along with the power and data connections, we also have an Ethernet switch. This is used to connect the Lynx camera above and the IdentiLynx camera out past the finish line (more on that camera later).
In the press box, the power line to the camera and main capture computer is connected to an uninterruptible power supply. This allows us to finish the race in progress and save the result, even in the case of a power loss. The data line runs to another ethernet switch, and from there, to the capture/evaluate and evaluate computers. The power for this switch is also taken from the uninterruptible supply device.
The capture/evaluate computer also has serial connections to the scoreboard and a manual capture button. The evaluation computer is a connection point for our results printer.
Except for the cameras, the basic hardware, as described above, remains in place throughout the season. These are brought into secure storage between meets. School staff, usually the coach, mount the camera as the track is prepared for the day’s event. As a volunteer operator, and until my recent retirement, my employment situation determines arrival at the track. Usually, this means getting on site about thirty minutes prior to the first running event. During that time, camera alignment is set, meet files are loaded to the computer, automatic capture feature is tested, and the wireless starting system is cycled to ensure that each start is signaled to the FinishLynx system
How this hardware is used depends on the type and the size of the meet at hand. For the bulk of our meets, all processing is done on a single computer. That is, each event is captured, evaluated, printed and saved before the next event is started. This would be typical of triangular and quad meets for both junior and senior high schools. For larger meets, the capture and evaluation tasks are separated. Once the event has been captured, the file is saved and then opened by the evaluator. He or she evaluates the event, and then saves and prints, or just saves the file to be used by another person to produce results with another program. This frees up the capture computer to allow the next event to start. So it is possible to produce data for every runner in every event with just one or two people. This is ideal for schools where volunteers are about as hard to get as funding.
Our typical meet utilizes two cameras. One is the Lynx camera described earlier. The other, an IdentiLynx camera, is set up past the finish, aligned toward the oncoming athletes. This provides the evaluator a second view of the race that is time indexed to the Lynx view. This allows one to see the bib and/or hip numbers and is an exceptional tool for determining results for any event in which the athletes finish out of lanes, such as 800, 1600, and 3200-meter races. My personal recommendation is that if there is any way that you can include an IdentiLynx camera in your track budget, then do so!
Note, please, the scoreboard connection. While not mandatory, if properly used, it can be very valuable. The most obvious benefit is allowing competitors and spectators see the running times and some or all of the results as the meet progresses. Another not so obvious, but very valuable, benefit is using the scoreboard to indicate to meet officials the timing staff’s readiness. We keep the time of day or last results on the scoreboard at all times, except when we are fully prepped to start and capture a race. Then, we display 0:00 on the board. This indicates to the starter that timing is ready to go. The starter then knows that the timing system has properly received a start signal, as the time increments from zero. The FinishLynx system includes support for many scoreboard interfaces.
Part of the benefits of FinishLynx is the ability to produce results that can be used in different ways.
For our junior high meets, we do not score the teams. We simply print out the results of each event and distribute copies to each coach at the end of the meet. In this manner, each coach and his or her students can see how they performed that day.
At the high school level, team scores are produced. We print the results and then chart them on a matrix where the overall results can be tallied. Copies of this chart are presented to the coaches at the end of the meet along with the event results. Again, each coach receives results for each of his or her athletes.
For our major meets, invitational, and state sectional events, little else are needed. We have a results coordinator who takes the output from the Lynx system and produces event documentation for distribution and posting. Capture and evaluate tasks are usually separated for these larger events to keep the workload manageable while preventing delays.
Not all of our meets are run at our home track. We are lucky that we have access to a nine-lane collegiate stadium in our town, and it is at this venue we hold most of our major events.
The setup at this venue is similar to the one at our home site, but it lacks permanence. Built over 10 years ago, the power and Ethernet infrastructure is beginning to show its age. As such, we often find it necessary to run cabling from the press box. This is time-consuming and laborious.
Additionally, this venue does not provide hardware. We use personal laptops here and create our own private network with which to run the meet. Having volunteers with their own computers and networking hardware has been invaluable for these off-site situations.
Sometimes, neither our home or collegiate locations are available to us for a major meet, and we are required to use another facility. It takes longer, but setting up a temporary system is not that much different. The key here is planning. We have to visit the site ahead of time and be prepared for the setup ahead. There are few things more embarrassing than starting a meet late because the timing system was not ready.
Make no mistake. The FinishLynx system is excellent and more capable than the needs of most junior high, high school, or even college programs. But without proper support from those around you, you may find it hard to leverage those capabilities to your advantage.
Work with your meet officials to understand how the system works and their part in the success of the meet. A starter, for instance, needs to know how to operate the gunless system or how to use the transducer for the traditional starting system. Referees and clerks need to communicate changes and additions to events and document the order of finish for each race that does not finish in lanes. You might think this unnecessary when using an IdentiLynx camera, but you will change your mind the first time that someone stands in front of it and the finish is not recorded…
Radios are a necessary evil. They are key to good communication among the timing crew and meet officials. As often as not, however, the radios are shared with other event staff, and, sometimes, even concurrently running events. The cross talk that ensues results more in chaos than communication. If at all possible, have a separate channel available just for timing purposes. That should include the finish line area, at a minimum. Order of finish and referee decisions such as false starts and exchange zone violations are then reported here and communicated to the timing staff for inclusion in the evaluations.
The Clerks of the Start can make or break your timing effort. They confirm the lane assignments and communicate any changes to the timing staff prior to each event. Stay friends with them – it pays off with a good meet.
Finally, two things that have helped the Lisle program to be such a success is cross training and testing. Each of us can set up the system and align it properly, or staff the capture or evaluation posts, or operate a combined capture and evaluation station. We all have familiarity with the wireless and gunless start systems as well, enabling us to train or troubleshoot these key elements.
Testing is critical. The FinishLynx system is very reliable and if we do encounter a problem, it usually traces back to a broken or corroded connection. This happens in a large part because we need to be somewhat portable and operate in all weather conditions. We perform preseason updates and system testing in advance of the track season and basic testing prior to each meet. In this manner, we most often identify and usually rectify any issues in advance and minimize or eliminate delays caused by these issues.
Lynx System Developers, Inc. products, such as FinishLynx and Identilynx, are powerful yet easy to use tools for the management and timing of school running events. At the time this article was written, Lynx just announced a new finish line camera offering. The EtherLynx Vision system offers new features to make the set up and alignment of the camera even simpler. This should prove to be a great advantage to smaller schools by further reducing complexity and shortening setup times.
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