Education

Automation Technology In Sport

12 Jul , 2016  

Here, Chris Corfield looks at some interesting ways automation and technology are used the world of sport.

From the Olympic Games in Rio or football’s European Championships and Copa America, to perennial events like Wimbledon and Formula 1; the business of staging major sporting events is booming. But, like any industry, sport benefits from an ever-growing arsenal of automated systems to increase its efficiency and capabilities. Let’s take a look at some interesting examples of automation in sport.

Goal-line technology

While many of football’s purist fans continue to show resistance to new forms of technology being introduced into the sport, others have shown a cautious interest in a particular piece of tech which proves the sport’s most crucial act beyond all doubt; whether the ball has crossed the goal line.

There is a lazy argument that these things ‘even themselves out’ over time. However, when you consider the vast amounts of money and exposure in the highest levels of the sport today though, coupled with the willingness of other sports to introduce technology (rugby, tennis, and cricket), it seems stubborn to leave decisions of such importance in the hands of the gods.

There are countless examples over the years of near-misses or wrong calls. This resulted in football’s world governing body, FIFA, announcing it was open to the idea of introducing a form of technology to confirm conclusively whether a goal should stand or not.

As an Englishman, I have seen the controversy this most basic of decisions can have. In the World Cup final of 1966, a shot from England’s Geoff Hurst was deemed by an Azerbaijani linesman to have crossed the line; West German fans and players disagreed but the call was made and England went on to win the tournament.

However the reverse of that happened in the 2010 World Cup, when a shot from Frank Lampard (also against Germany, as fate would have it) was called as having not crossed the line when replays showed it clearly did. Indeed, it was thought to be this specific incident which turned the tide in favour of introducing technology.

In 2012 the first trials of goal-line technology took place at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. The technology used was called Hawk-Eye, which is already known to fans of tennis. In 2013 this same technology was then brought in to the English Premier League.

Hawk-Eye uses 14 high speed cameras located around the goalmouth, which track the flight of the ball and the velocity at which it is travelling. The cameras are then able to quickly and accurately tell the location of the ball to a margin of around 3mm. Other systems, including those used in international tournaments, place cameras high around the stadium but the principles are the same.

A wristband, worn by the referee, vibrates automatically if the ball crosses the line. This entire process happens within seconds to ensure there is no disruption to the game, while the cameras also provide television viewers with conclusive proof of the decision in the form of a graphic.

By Nicole Cordeiro – originally posted to Flickr as Cowgirl’s Stadium, CC BY 2.0

Retractable stadium roofs

If you’ve ever visited a modern mega-stadium, or even driven past one, you’ll know what an amazing feat of engineering and architecture they are. The size and scale of these constructions is truly spectacular. Until it starts to rain, that is.

Thankfully, a growing number of larger stadiums now boast fully retractable roofs, which can be opened or closed as the situation dictates. An early example is the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team, which opened in 1961. However the technology behind them has grown at such a rate that fully automated roofs are now quite common.

High profile modern examples include Centre Court at Wimbledon, Wales’ Millennium Stadium and Wembley Stadium in London, which features a partially moveable roof that follows the sunlight in order to minimise shade and encourage the grass to grow more quickly.

Of course, due to their metal construction and size, it is quite an operation to physically open and close these roofs, not to mention expensive.  It costs around 20,000 Euro to open or close the roof at the Amsterdam Arena in the Netherlands, for example. So, as you can imagine, the drives and motors tasked with carrying out work the need to be reliable, efficient and extremely powerful.

Sports journalism

Journalists’ reports carry out a crucial role for anyone who follows sport. The journalists themselves spend decades building up networks of contacts and credibility, providing people with the definitive word on the weekend’s sporting action. But that could all be set to change, thanks to the growth of a new phenomenon; the automated journalist.

Modern software and algorithms can take basic sporting information like scores, timings, substitutions and results (basically anything fact-based which can be verified) and effectively combine it with semantic language models to create automated sports reports. It’s happening in other sectors too, like stock market or weather reporting, but it’s in sport that the effects will perhaps be seen by most. In the States, a company called Automated Insights is already creating sports reports using its own proprietary software.

To try and discover whether humans could ever fully accept information like this from non-human sources, an experiment at Karlstads University in Sweden gave an independent panel two examples of a report on the same football match. One report was written by a human reporter, one by automated methods. The results were interesting; the report written by the robot was deemed more trustworthy, whereas the human report was said to be much more accessible. Proof, perhaps, that while certain parts of sports reporting can be automated, and are, there will always be a place for the human touch within the equation.

Video showing the impact of big data on football transfers

Monitoring & Data

Our final example involves the complex methods utilised to monitor the performance of athletes competing at the highest level. Often automated in terms of data collection, these systems can track everything from the player’s position on the pitch, the intensity at which they move, the decisions they make, and even the likelihood of them becoming injured as a result of their exertion.

Controlled via a network of sensors, cameras and wearable tech, modern systems like Prozone provide a wealth of information in real time. Using this, a coach or manager can make decisions based on hard fact, rather than experience or intuition. Groups like Opta use similar forms of data to feed the interests of fans with data on their favourite players and teams. Bragging rights are important, you see.

Clubs, teams and individual athletes use this data for a variety of purposes, like analyzing performance, highlighting areas in which improvements can be made and advising on transfer activity.

At the elite level of sport, it is often the fine margins which can make the difference between winning and losing, hence the willingness of top clubs and individuals to experiment with different forms of technology.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, sport is a great place to see genuine technological innovation. From GPS-enabled tracking systems to the use of big data, the advances seen in sport often mirror the types of technologies we see in industry. And, while there’s no guarantee of success on the pitch or track as a result of tech, we can continue to innovate and develop the skills and techniques used behind the scenes.

What do you think? Have you seen any interesting examples of technology or automation in sport? Let us know in the comments box below.

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Chris Corfield

Chris Corfield