Dec 17, 2019While RFID has brought automated data to race timing for marathons and large track events, the technology's cost can be above the modest budget of many common, and considerably smaller, community 5K races. Timing system company Agee Race Timing and RFID technology firm SensThys are selling what they say is a solution for small- to mid-sized events and race-timing companies that enables users to quickly set up an RFID-based timing system out of a box.
The RaceKit-Pro solution consists of a kit that users can carry to a a race, which includes four tripods, reader and antenna hardware from SensThys, and Agee Race Timing software to capture and manage the RFID tag reads of race participants. The kit is designed to be a single, compact and affordable hardware and software package, for what are typically 5-kilometer running races involving 150 to 1,000 participants. It includes a SensArray-Pro UHF RFID reader using Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), so there are minimal cable requirements. It also comes with three SensRF-101 antennas and antenna cables that can be set up at any point along a race course and be covered with a rubber mat.
Agee has traditionally offered software that is now being used for timing race competitors in events around the world. The company was launched by its president, Brian Agee, a running enthusiast who had been seeking a technology solution for race timing since his competitive running days in college. After graduating, Agee developed his own solution to avoid paying timers to time the annual events he organized. "I wanted a system that was easy to use, with no yearly fees, and that wouldn't lock me in with proprietary hardware or tags," he says.
"I've been timing my own races since 2003," Agee says. "I didn't want to pay for chip timing for small races." However, he notes, "manually timing a race is not fun." In some cases, that meant starting the timer manually, then running ahead of other participants so he could be at the finish line to capture the results of each runner. By 2012, he had developed his software to sell to other racing organizations, and then to the timing solution providers. One feature that Agee makes his solution unique is its "open hardware" feature—customers can use the solution with any hardware or tags they choose.
A timing system can typically cost around $10,000 for RFID tags and readers, as well as software, or the same amount to hire a race timer, if they are used multiple times. However, most races are actually local fun-runs and fundraisers that can ill afford that expense. "So there was a problem in the timing industry," Agee says. "I wanted to make it so anyone could time their race."
Agee's software is currently in use with at least seven different brands of RFID readers and is being used in 46 countries by approximately 500 timers. However, the system can still be somewhat expensive and challenging to install for small companies with little experience. Most of these timers are what he calls "weekend warriors"—mom and pop groups that do not require a complex, expensive system. "They simply want something that is reliable and easy to set up."
The software works with most off-the-shelf UHF RFID readers, Agee says. "However, the SensThys RaceKit package offers the best value on the market." When Agee met with SensThys, says Neil Mitchell, SensThys's sales and marketing VP, "It became clear to us that there was an opportunity to work together. We felt we could simplify his equipment for him and minimize time for customers to set up [race timing], as well as reduce the cost." To that end, the firm developed the hardware, which consists of a single reader with an antenna array that could be set up to provide two read points on each side of a track. The technology could be used at finish lines or starting lines, or at other points along a race course.
The reader can be placed hundreds of feet from a finish line computer via a CAT6 Ethernet cable. The companies worked with several Agee customers to try the technology in the field, after which other features were added, such as a reusable kit case with foam inserts, making the solution compact enough that someone could park a distance from the race-timing site and carry the gear to that site.
Piloting included testing the equipment during inclement weather, as well as when the reader was sitting out in sunlight for hours on a 98-degree day. SensThys further engineered the device for heat distribution, ease of deployment and length of cable, and the results pleased users, as well as Agee. "The system works great," he says.
After three months of testing, the companies are now rolling the kit out commercially. Users will receive the kit and will separately purchase the Agee software. Agee says he recommends users spend a week or two with the software before purchasing it, so that they can be sure they can work the system before the race begins and the equipment needs to be set up.
Events will separately purchase race bibs, as well as shoe or ankle tags with built-in UHF RFID inlays. Typically, Agee provides samples for testing using Alien Technology's Short Squiggle inlay. The reader and antennas are then connected, mounted on tripods and cabled via Ethernet to a computer that can act as a kiosk, collecting and displaying race results. Participants are typically provided with the RFID-enabled bib or tag—with a number printed on the front that corresponds with the unique ID number encoded on the RFID chip—as they arrive on race day.
As each runner finishes the race and passes the antennas, the tag ID in his or her bib is captured for that participant and is linked to his or her time. That information is then displayed according to the printed number on the front of the bib or tag. Participants can view their results on the computer, or later on a server if the data is uploaded to one. Once the race is over, the technology can be taken back down and packed within minutes, the companies report. The kits can also come customized with cables and brackets of a specific size, according to a user's needs.
The kit is designed not only for use in 5Ks, but also for endurance races, obstacle courses and other sports, such as solar cars, canoes or motocross racing. Agee says the solution has been more a matter of passion than business for him. "I'm a guy who loves this sort of running and wants to give back," he says. Agee also offers other software features that can be employed for specific kinds of races. For instance, readers can be installed along different points on a more challenging race course, and the software can track each point at which participants pass, in order to ensure runners are moving ahead as expected.
In addition, Agee says, the system could be used to prevent collisions during high-speed events, such as motocross racing. For instance, a reader would be installed near a jump. If it detected a participant's tag and found that tag to be motionless, a warning could be sent if another participant was approaching.
The RaceKit box measures 14 inches by 14 inches by 30 inches and includes the reusable case, the SensArray reader, three antennas, two 30-foot antenna cables, one 12-foot antenna cable for the antenna nearest the reader, a power injector, a 50-foot cable for use between the reader and injector, and a 10-foot cable that goes between the computer and the injector. It also comes with sample tags and a rain cover for the reader, as well as four tripods for use in mounting the reader and antennas. The RaceKit-Pro costs $2,169, while the software would be a one time cost of $900.