Dale Steyns bowling speed is measured by a device invented by another top South African, Henri Johnson. Picture: Reuters
Dale Steyns bowling speed is measured by a device invented by another top South African, Henri Johnson. Picture: Reuters

Top flight invention

By Professor Mike Bruton Time of article published Jun 21, 2011

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Henri Johnson from Somerset West is an engineer who has used his background in sonar and radar to develop technology that measures the speed and direction of tennis, cricket and golf balls during play.

This innovative technology is used in tournaments throughout the world and provides fascinating insights into the flight paths of balls and the playing techniques of famous sportspeople.

Johnson’s love for engineering began as a young child and led to him studying engineering at university. As a professional engineer, he initially focused on projects using sonar, which were commissioned by the SA Navy.

Later, he developed radar technology that could measure the velocity and ballistics of projectiles in flight. This technology is now used by the military in more than 20 countries around the world.

With his years of experience in Doppler radar and phased array tracking technology, Johnson realised there was a need, and opportunity, to use this technology for applications in sports.

He established an engineering company, Electronic Development House (EDH), in Stellenbosch to service a growing clientele from a broad range of industries, including sports. In 1992, he invented the “Speed Gun” that accurately measures the speed and angles of fast-moving objects, such as cricket or tennis balls. He later improved his invention with the development of the EDH SpeedBall, which uses a Doppler radar system originally developed for the military, to measure the speed of a cricket ball in flight.

This device is placed at either end of a cricket ground and takes a reading every 1/1 000 of a second. It can measure the ball every few centimetres in its flight, with an accuracy of less than 1 percent of the actual speed. It computes the speed from the moment the ball leaves the bowler’s hand to the moment it strikes the pitch (or bat), and again after it bounces. It compensates automatically for the various bowling angles and distances, and ignores stationary objects. This device was formally launched at the Oval Cricket Ground in England during the 1999 Cricket World Cup.

Johnson then applied similar technology to the tennis court and invented the world’s first 3D tennis serve speed measuring device, the RaquetRadar, which measures the speed of a player’s service.

Finally, he turned his attention to golf and, in 2004, developed the world-famous FlightScope, a comprehensive 3D golf ball tracker.

FlightScope is able to follow the trajectory of a golf ball, and provides information on speed, direction and angle of flight. As the world’s first 3D Doppler Tracking Radar, FlightScope is now offered as a cost-effective solution for the traditional “launch monitor” market, where accuracy and reliability have become increasingly important. FlightScope measures the entire ball trajectory, together with the club head speed profile and the club head acceleration profile. It is now used by top golf instructors, club fitters and equipment manufacturers throughout the world.

EDH is now respected globally for its innovations in sports technologies, defence and industrial inspection systems and medical devices, and exports its products to 16 countries. The company has captured 20 percent market share in the golf industry for its golf ball flight monitor FlightScope, 30 percent market share for worldwide tennis monitoring services (such as tennis service speed systems, tennis event management systems and umpire scoring systems), and about 5 percent of the world market in the military field for muzzle velocity radars.

Although Johnson is the CEO and president of EDH, he is also the main innovator in the company, and leads product development at the strategic and implementation levels. He is committed to delivering a world-class product with exceptional after-sales support and relocated the headquarters of his company to Orlando, Florida, in the US in 2008.

* Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre and is director of imagineering at MTE Studios (www.mtestudios.com). He wrote Great South African Inventions, published by Cambridge University Press.

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