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The Internet of Things comes to the NFL

Thor Olavsrud | Sept. 8, 2015
Every NFL player and stadium will be equipped with RFID sensors and receivers, respectively, this football season, allowing the league to track fine-grained location data for every play.

football turf

The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming to the NFL in a big way.

On Thursday, when the defending Superbowl XLIX champion New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the 2015 football season, each player will be equipped with a set of RFID sensors about the size of a quarter embedded in his shoulder pads, each emitting unique radio frequencies. Gillette Stadium (and every other stadium used by the NFL) has been equipped with 20 receivers to pick up those radio frequencies and pinpoint every player's field position, speed, distance traveled and acceleration in real time.

By using two sensors for each player — one embedded in the left shoulder pad and one on the right — the system will also be able to identify the facing of each player.

The NFL plans to use the data generated to power the NFL 2015 app for Xbox One and Windows 10, allowing for things like "Next Gen Replay" that will allow fans to call up stats for each player tied into highlight clips posted on the app. But that's just the beginning. The data will be fed to broadcasters, leveraged for in-stadium displays and provided to coaching staff and players.

NFL tagged shoulder pads
Two sensors will be embedded in the shoulder pads of every NFL player.

"We've always had these traditional NFL stats," says Matt Swensson, senior director of Emerging Products and Technology at the NFL. "The league has been very interested in trying to broaden that and bring new statistics to the fans. Along the way, there's been more realization about how the data can be leveraged to make workflow more efficient around the game."

"This type of initiative really opens the doors to do more things at the venue," Swensson adds. "At the Pro Bowl last year, we had a display up that showed what players were on the field. By putting up what players were on the field in real time, it really gave fans more information."

Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies is the NFL's technology partner in its IoT push. Founded in 1969, Zebra built its name on manufacturing and selling marking, tracking and printing technologies ranging from thermal barcode label and receipt printers, RFID smart label printer/encoders and card and kiosk printers. Beginning in 2013, it began pivoting into IoT and machine to machine (M2M) applications with the launch of its Zatar software platform. In the same year, it launched its MotionWorks Sports Solution, which powers the NFL initiative.

"Traditionally, Zebra has done bar coding," says Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager, Location Solutions, Zebra Technologies.

 

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