Mobico turns finish line nightmare into dream run

Published on the 08/04/2010 | Written by Mobico

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  • Auckland’s annual Ports of Auckland Round the Bays fun-run, organised by Pants Events.


  • Sports & Recreation


  • A robust, low cost, automated race timing system capable of capturing and storing tens of thousands of the runners’ results quickly, accurately and with minimal interference as they crossed the finish line.


  • A customised real-time data scanning and race control system developed by Mobico.


  • Accurate finishing time data is now available for instant use race organisers, saving hundreds of hours of post-event manual processing.


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Processing finishing times for the Ports of Auckland Round the Bays used to be a marathon effort for event organisers. Now, thanks to Mobico, it’s a stroll in the park...

Ports of Auckland Round the Bays has been an annual event in Auckland since 1972. It has grown to be one of the world’s largest fun runs with nearly 40,000 registered runners and an estimated 70,000 participants.

Every registered participant in the 8.4km run receives a runner number to wear on the day and a personalised certificate recording the time they completed.

When they arrive at the finish line, runners expect to have their time recorded quickly and accurately, with minimum demands on themselves in their exhausted state. As the popularity of the event continued to grow, the organisers, Pants Events, realised they needed an automated system capable of capturing the results quickly and accurately on the spot with minimum interference, record them centrally and make them available immediately.

The Challenge
In the past runners were channelled into ten chutes as they finished the run. Barcoded slips were torn from their bibs and spiked manually. Every 30 seconds, a time divider was added to the spike.

For the runners, this system was slow and inconvenient.

If it worked perfectly, runners received an approximate race time within a 30-second band. With the probability of human mistakes, the actual margin of error was even wider.

Once all the data was collected, some 400 man hours had to be spent to manually scan, allocate, cross-check and enter results into a computer before it could be made available. It could be up to three weeks after the event before the results were out.

With the event attracting more participants year-onyear, this system was becoming increasingly impractical, leading Pants Events to trial a mobile wireless technology solution from Mobico.

The new solution was trialled in 2005 and, since 2006, Mobico has undertaken to shoulder the full responsibility for race results, delivering a system that achieves reliability, accuracy and timeliness which would have been impossible under the previous manual system.

The Solution
At the heart of Mobico’s solution are 24 Motorola MC9000-series ruggedised handheld mobile computers (with inbuilt barcode scanners) linked to a central database, through a secure wireless Local Area Network (LAN) operating over the race finish area.

As runners reach the finish line, they are funnelled into one of 20 chutes, each staffed by a race official with one of the Motorola devices. The officials scan the barcode attached to each runner’s race number and the finish-time data is stored on the device’s memory and simultaneously transmitted over the LAN to the race control system.

Up to 1000 runners an hour – or one approximately every 3 to 4 seconds are scanned in each of the 20 chutes, making the data processing intensity of the Ports of Auckland Round the Bays finish line up to ten times more intensive than the busiest distribution centres in New Zealand, which typically use similar scanning technology.

The finish time information is required almost immediately because runners have the option of moving from the chutes to a “print tent” where they are given a sticker with their race time printed on it.

After the event, the data is integrated with the event’s website and the day after the Ports of Auckland Round the Bays, runners are able to visit the site to download a certificate recording their name and completion time.

The whole race timing process is one where there is no room for failure at any point across the system.mobico_auckland_round_the_bay_cs_1

“Obviously one of the biggest issues is that we only get one chance to collect the data and if we miss it, it’s gone,” says Ports of Auckland Round the Bays organiser Catherine Buchanan from Pants Events.

“If we fail to capture a participant’s time, we can’t ask them to come back to the finish line or run the race again,” she says.

“Mobico have done a great job of making sure the system is reliable.”

Pants Events has investigated the option of using RFID tags rather than scanners to record runners’ times but Buchanan says the technology remains too expensive for an event where organisers are focused on keeping the entry fee as affordable as possible.

“Barcode scanning is absolutely the best solution for Ports of Auckland Round the Bays,” she says.

To ensure the chances of the race timing system failing is kept to an absolute minimum, Mobico have built multiple risk mitigation factors into the timing solution.

Results data remains stored on each handheld device even after it is transmitted over the secure wireless LAN.

While weather-proof ruggedised devices are used to ensure environmental factors don’t hamper the scanning process, back-up handhelds are on hand in case one fails.

The LAN is set up as a mesh network, meaning no single point of failure can lead to data transmission being blocked.

An uninterruptable power supply is also used to ensure power outages do not affect the event.

And whilst Mobico has significant experience building custom-made scanning solutions to meet clients’ specific needs, the company encountered some unusual conditions associated with Ports of Auckland Round the Bays which needed to be taken into account when designing a robust solution.

A major consideration was that a large number of human bodies in close proximity – especially sweaty bodies – can interfere with wireless LAN transmissions.

Because literally thousands of runners can be around the event’s finish chutes at any one time, Mobico needed to come up with a way to mitigate the potentially disruptive impact of all those bodies on the ability of the LAN to keep transmitting data effectively. This was achieved by routing transmission up to the top of the 6-7m high finish line gantries, rather than simply across the park to the race system control centre and print tent.

The density of access points in the area of the finish line was also increased and directional aerials used to ensure the signal strength was maximised in the areas where the handheld devices are scanning.

The Results
Mobico’s race timing system for the Ports of Auckland Round the Bays run means runners’ times can be captured to within a second and without any inconvenience to those taking part in the tiring event. The data is available immediately, enabling finishers to receive a sticker confirming their time within minutes of completing the race.

Event organisers no longer have to spend hundreds of hours after the run collating results. They are now posted to the website the following day.

The Mobico solution provides race organisers with a robust and reliable system, capable of withstanding everything from power and equipment failure to the unusually harsh operating environment caused by thousands of sweaty bodies simultaneously rushing towards the Ports of Auckland Round the Bays finish line.


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