Meet the UK robotic tech company making the 2020 elite London Marathon possible

The starting gun for the 2020 London Marathon will finally be fired this weekend, and it is down in large part to one British tech company’s device.

The major event will look nothing like it did in previous years.

Instead of competing along miles of tarmac, cheered on by stands packed with supporters, just 100 elite runners will be taking part in a collective marathon in the “secure biosphere environment” of a closed-loop circuit around St James’s Park, whilst more than 45,000 people will be completing their 26.2 mile route “virtually” this Sunday – running on their usual practice routes.

But it is still a big moment. The race will be the first major marathon to take place anywhere in the world since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, and as a result safety is a priority.

The Bump wearable device looks like a small disc (Tharsus)

The ultimate priority for the Marathon’s organisers was to ensure participating athletes would be reassured that they would be protected from the virus. To make this happen, they turned to British robotics firm Tharsus and its small, disc-shaped wearable tech device, the Bump.

Launched just six months ago as the pandemic hit the UK, the Bump has been designed and tested at the firm’s HQ in Blyth, Northumberland.

Described by company CEO Brian Palmer as a “Fitbit for safety”, it uses Radio Frequency (RF) technology to create a Personal Motion System that immediately alerts wearers when they are getting too close to another person for social distancing. It operates a traffic light system, and when anyone gets too close – deemed to be 1.2m away – the Bump flashes red and beeps.

Eliud Kipchoge, an athlete representing Kenya, receiving his Bump (Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

From this week, elite runner, and all 500 plus marathon staff, will be wearing a Bump full-time until after the marathon. The only exception is for the duration of the race itself.

Thee plan is to use the company’s “advanced track and trace system” in the event a marathon runner or staff member subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, CEO Brian Palmer told the Standard.

As everyone will be wearing a Bump, and it transmits data in real time, the company will be able to notify anyone who spent time with an infected person, along with how long they spent with them.

“Our system is completely scalable… It can respond in minutes with a very precise track-and-trace. Everyone will be able to see who they have interacted with within the last two weeks,” said Palmer. “We’ve been in discussions with the Marathon team since March.

“It’s fantastic to be taking on such a high profile event. It is the first marathon taking place since March, and it’s a big event for the world of running, and for sport generally, to show that you can run an event like this in a responsible manner.”

Eliud Kipchoge posing with his device (Photo: Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

Each device costs around £80, or less if ordered in bulk.

Before having to postpone the original marathon in April, the London Marathon team had even planned to order every single runner a Bump device and then use its track and trace system.

Marathon event director, Hugh Brasher, said the Bump “shows how important a role technology can play in the current situation”.

“The Bump technology has played an important role, giving our athletes and internal teams extra confidence to engage with the event safely,” he said.

Tharsus had also been set to help run the first sports stadium returns this month.

The company is also running trials with the NHS, looking at how the Bump can be used to protect immunocompromised people, such as cancer patients, as they are moved around hospitals. The wearing of the devices has the potential to help make interactions easier for cancer patients at what is already an incredibly difficult time, as they would be able to know they were speaking to people at a safe distance, and have an audible and visual cue when people are too close.

Tharsus is keen to roll the Bump out in workplaces too. Palmer claims its research has shown that if everyone wears a device it “balances out” workplaces, as it makes social distancing easy and uncomplicated.

With the marathon deployment as a test, not to mention the usage of Bump during sports events, there’s hope that this could be the device that makes socialising, and the economic benefits from that, more viable in our new socially-distanced world

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