There are no bubbling beakers in sight.
No Bunsen burners. No Petri dishes. No test tubes.
No bank of state-of-the-art computers. No snazzy snow-white lab coats.
No sound-proof facility.
“It’s not a lab,” says Sam Pollock, laughing and stating the obvious.
As the sun beats down, the University of Calgary biomedical engineering student crawls around in the dust at the chuckwagon barns on the Calgary Stampede grounds. Deftly and carefully – despite the everyday commotion of horses and wagons and mini-bikes and quads and cowboys and kids – he attaches a strain gauge to the pole of Jason Glass’s rig.
The pole is what keeps everything linked – four thoroughbreds to the chuckwagon, four thoroughbreds to each other.
Consider the incredible force on display during a race.
Which is precisely what interests the Stampede and the university. Both institutions are keen to discover ways to enhance wagon safety and possibly even performance.
Improving pole design is the aim.
Hence, the four-month project – and Pollock’s hands-on, sleeves-up, eyes-open approach. It’s a challenge.
“A chuckwagon is such a bad environment for data collection that we just want to try as many things as we can to see if we can get something useful out of this,” says Pollock, with a big smile on his face. “It’s bumpy, it’s dirty, it’s wet. There’s horses kicking your electronics.”
Pollock has thrown himself into the task, including touching base with all of the participants.
“Everyone in the community has been great to me, to be honest,” he says. “On the first day I started cold-calling drivers, I would open up with, ‘Hi, do you have a minute to talk about chuckwagon poles?’ And there wasn’t a driver who said no. Everyone, from the get-go, has been super helpful.
“We’ve got guys like Jason (Glass) and Mark (Sutherland) and Troy Flad, a bunch of the drivers, who are letting me come in and glue electronics to their poles and put up with my research. It’s really appreciated. Everyone’s been great.”
(Glass even took him for a brisk spin in the wagon. “Bumpy,” reports Pollock. “It was fun.”)
The pole, about 13 feet long, consists of 2.5-inch diameter pipe with a quarter-inch cable running its length.
“They’re made of just about every kind of steel under the sun,” says Pollock. “It really runs the spectrum, in terms of shapes, sizes, alloys.”
(In his blog, Pollock notes: “Most of the poles are made of used steel pipe from the oil industry. Others are made of aluminium tubing. One driver has a chrome molybdenum alloy pole. Some poles are made by professional welders. Other poles are welded together in a farmer’s field.”)
The microchip of the tiny strain gauge measures bend. From that, Pollock can determine “the stress and the forces that are going on inside the pole. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not super complicated.”
Pollock is also utilizing accelerometers, which, glued to the wagons themselves, calculate the obvious. Fun fact: driving home from the High River races, he determined that wagons pick up speed at twice the rate of his hatchback.
“Big forces,” he says, “but when you think about what’s really going on, on the chuckwagon track, it’s not that surprising.”
Too, Pollock is making good use of Go-Pro cameras. They are mounted on the wagon’s front and a strip of electrical tape is run down the middle of the pole.
“Then you can see a lot about how it’s bending and where it’s bending, and you can use software to figure out how much,” says Pollock. “You can see when the right wheeler hits the pole, there’s definitely a significant bend. And also when it’s going around the barrel, the pole will bend. That’s expected. And there’s also variation from pole to pole.”
In the midst of gathering piles of data now, Pollock expects to have completed his undertaking in late August.
“I’m going to do a bunch of math and figure out what’s going on,” he says. “This is just the first step of many probably.”
Which suits him fine.
As a Calgarian and as a fan of the Stampede, he is diving into an area of research that he finds compelling. Of course, he’s not alone.
“I’ve got some friends who are super excited,” says Pollock. “My dad’s an engineer and my mom’s in research in nursing, so they’re both excited that I’m doing this project. I’m going to have people come out as the week goes on.
“I’m definitely going to need help. Everyone who’s interested is going to get a chance to see what I’m doing.”