10 Ways Technology Is Changing Football

New technology has moved into helmets, stadiums, and television broadcasts.
  • When you sit down to watch football on Thanksgiving, remember this: Even amidst the bone-crunching blocks and tackles, there’s technology. Over the course of a century, the game’s helmets, jerseys, gloves, and even undershirts have evolved to keep players safer and warmer.

    But those advances were just a warm-up for more recent innovations. Today, mammoth scoreboards use millions of light-emitting diodes, enabling fans to watch high-definition replays while they sit in the stands. And television broadcasts now employ superimposed lines on the screen, allowing viewers to more easily identify first-down territories. Technology has even put the venerable tackling dummy on the sidelines, as pro and college programs have begun turning to robots to take more hits in practice.

    Here, we’ve collected photos of some of the technologies that are changing the way football is played and viewed. From smart helmets to giant scoreboards to little yellow lines on your TV screen, here’s a look at a few of the biggest innovations you’ll see on your screen this turkey day.

  • At the highest levels of football, many players now employ helmets with personalized energy management systems. In 2017, Riddell rolled out a technology known as Precision-Fit, which uses multiple 3D light scans of a player’s head to create a customized helmet liner. Riddell makes the system by sending a technician to the player’s locker room to do the light scans. The scans capture the detailed size and contours of the player’s head down to a half-millimeter, and then serve as the basis for the creation of personalized molds for the urethane liners that fit inside the helmet. At the 2018 Super Bowl, 20 players used the Precision-Fit technology. This season, the number has increased. Riddell told us that there are now more than 1,000 college players employing Precision-Fit, along with a “healthy percentage” of NFL players. (Image source: Riddell)

  • The scoreboards at AT&T Stadium in Dallas are probably the world’s best example of how electronics are changing professional sports. In all, the stadium has four LED-based scoreboards: two smaller ones facing the end zones and two larger ones facing the sidelines. The larger ones measure 72 feet high by 160 feet wide, extending from one 20-yard line to the other. Together, the four Mitsubishi-built scoreboards employ approximately 30 million LEDs and provide 1080p resolution. They also burn 635 kW of power and weigh more than 600 tons. They were apparently worth the cost and effort, however. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones claims that the experience for attendees is better than viewing the game on a 60-inch television at home. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Klobetime)

  • The venerable tackling dummy might seem like an unlikely candidate for electronic replacement, but that’s already the case in a few select college and professional programs. The Virtual Mobile Player (MVP), invented by engineering students at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, lists 16 professional teams and 27 college programs among its users. Invented as a way to help football teams reduce the risk of head and neck injuries during contact drills, the MVP can simulate human players in a variety of activities, including drills that involve running, passing, blocking, and tackling. Moreover, it does its duties in impressive fashion: It sprints 40 yards in five seconds flat and quickly pops back up after being leveled by a 300-lb lineman. The battery-powered dummy employs a 2.4-GHz transceiver board to allow for communication from coaches, who operate it remotely. Eventually, though, the company hopes to make programmable dummies that can run a passing route and return to the huddle by themselves, without remote direction. (Image source: Dartmouth College)

  • Skycam is a robotic innovation that changed football by making home television viewers feel as if they were hovering a few yards above the field. The system uses a computer-controlled camera that is maneuvered in three dimensions above the playing surface on a four-point suspended cable. Video imagery is transmitted over fiber optic lines. Surprisingly, Skycam’s motor-driven Sony HDC-P1 cameras are big—about 36 inches high and 50 lbs—but they can zip across the field at speeds up to 25 mph. The technology was first patented in the mid-1980s, but saw limited use for many years, reportedly due to limitations in computer control and servo motor technology. By 2001, however, ESPN and ABC-TV began employing it on Monday Night football, and it soon became a staple in virtually every NFL broadcast. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Leonard G)

  • The humble hand warmer might not sound like much of game changer, but it’s become a staple for pros who have to play outdoors in cold weather, as well as for fans who flock to stadiums for January games. To be sure, the technology existed long before football players adopted it, having been invented in Japan in 1923. In essence, the hand warmer uses iron, water, activated carbon, and salt to produce heat from an exothermic reaction when exposed to air. It typically emits heat for one to ten hours. Ironically, the motivation to bring the technology to football came from a warm weather team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs, concerned about poor performance at cold-weather venues during the 1980s, called on their team trainer, Frank Pupello, to fashion a solution. According to ESPN, Pupello developed a warmer-based muff attached by a Velcro link, which he called the Pupello Pocket. The Pupello Pocket has since been replaced by higher-tech versions, but the premise remains. Today’s skill players wouldn’t dream of handling the ball during January without the aid of an attached hand warmer. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • The little yellow first-down line on your TV screen is a deceptively complex engineering problem that calls for a combination of servers, PCs, and camera-mounted encoders, as well as countless lines of software. The need for all that technology lies in the fact that the yellow line is an incredibly compute-intensive feature. To superimpose it, the system’s computer needs to store a detailed 3D model of the field. It also has to “know” the orientation of the field with respect to the camera. Then, it must read data from encoders mounted on the cameras to help it understand the movement of the camera itself, so it can calculate where the yard lines are in the changing environment and where the yellow line should be placed. Finally, its software needs to understand the movement of players and referees, so it doesn’t paint the line on top of the game’s action. The technology to accomplish all of that is largely credited to an engineer named Stan Honey, who founded Sportsvision (now SMT). Ironically, Honey’s impact on football is dwarfed by his other work. He also holds world sailing records, was the director of technology for the 34th America’s Cup, and is most notably regarded as the “father of consumer on-screen navigation,” which became a key component of automotive navigation. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • One of the great unappreciated innovations of football’s past 20 years has been the introduction of an artificial surface called FieldTurf. FieldTurf emerged as an alternative to harder artificial surfaces that were widely disliked by players. FieldTurf, and competing surfaces like it, offered a softer solution by providing an infill of sand and rubber underneath a layer of artificial grass. The resulting field is not only softer, but allows players to plant and cut as if they were playing on grass. Each square foot of the surface contains about 7 lbs of sand and 3 lbs of cryogenic rubber. The materials are permeable enough to allow water to drain through them. FieldTurf made its debut in pro football in 2002 at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (shown) and is now used by 11 pro teams, as well as hundreds of college and high school football programs. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Smart Destinations, GoSeattleCard.com)

  • Because the biggest concern in football today is head injuries, helmet manufacturers have begun teaming with universities to study how the game’s hardest impacts affect the human brain. To make that happen, football gear manufacturer Riddell has created the Sideline Response System (SRS)—essentially, an advanced telemetry system for monitoring and analyzing head impacts. The heart of the system is an iMEMS Motion Signal Processing System from Analog Devices, Inc. It uses accelerometers, like those in automotive air bags, to measure the impact forces inside the helmet. The system records linear and rotational acceleration, location, direction, and duration of each hit and then processes it for use by engineering research teams studying the topic. Since 2003, Riddell’s system has been employed by university researchers at such schools as Virginia Tech, the University of North Carolina, UCLA, and elsewhere to create a database of more than five million impacts. (Image source: Riddell)

  • Riddell’s InSite Training Tool (ITT) is the next step in the study of head injuries, enabling coaches and trainers to measure and record significant head impacts during games or practice. ITT is far less costly than Riddell’s SRS system and aimed less at research and more at identifying on-field problems. It includes a thin pad containing five sensors—front, back, top, left, and right—that fits beneath the helmet liner. One of the keys to ITT is its web-based data center, which enables coaches and trainers to compare traumas to those of other players and then modify a player’s behavior. “If you have a high school offensive guard, and you want to compare his impacts to the impacts of a thousand other high school offensive guards, you can do that,” Justin Kenny of Riddell told Design News. “The system could flag his abnormalities and compare them against the national norm.” More than 30,000 athletes at 1,200 schools nationwide now use the system. (Image source: Riddell)

  • Football head injuries also have become a rich arena for the development of new technologies among start-ups. One such technology, known as the Smart Cap, would make head impact measurement solutions more affordable for football helmet manufacturers. Created by a Colorado company called Concussion Mitigation Technologies LLC, the Smart Cap is, in itself, a sensor. Founder Troy Fodemski weaves capacitance sensors into an off-the-shelf wool cap, along with a tiny printed circuit board. “The cap can be worn on any head and in any helmet,” Fodemski told Design News. “So we don’t have to integrate electronics into the helmet.” The Smart Cap measures different zones and different types of impacts, including linear and rotational forces, and then sends the data to the cloud for storage. The start-up wants to license the technology, and foresees the potential for a million caps per year to be sold into football, hockey, lacrosse, auto racing, and the military. (Image source: Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC)

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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