Going Deep: The Future of Technology in the NFL

In the years ahead, the National Football League looks set to dial up some new tech blitzes that will make the game fairer and safer.

Among the technologies most likely to make it onto the field soon are wireless sensors in the ball and in players' gear. These technologies will resolve tough referee calls, aid in training and improve safety. New helmet designs should also better protect players from injury.

Off the field, advanced analytics that reveal the statistical wisdom or folly of certain play-calls might already be subtly changing the game of American football.

The NFL's embrace of technology will continue to benefit the game and its fans, Priya Narasimhan said. She is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and heads the Football Engineering Research Group, the only academic program of its kind.

"Everything [the NFL does] is incredibly progressive without spoiling the spontaneity and fun of the game," Narasimhan said, "because you don’t want technology to get in the way."

A game of inches

Perhaps football's most nerve-racking, contentious plays are short-yardage smashups of the defensive and offensive lines as the ball carrier tries to eke out a first down or "cross the plane" of the goal line for a touchdown.

These nail-biters usually require the referees (often with the aid of instant replay) to try and divine just where in the heck the ball is amid a seething pile of giant men.

The solution: a sensor in the ball that registers when it has indeed crossed the first down or goal line.

At least two companies, Cairos Technologies in Germany and YinzCam, a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University's program, have developed the necessary technology.

Cairos' method – so far honed just for soccer – involves running a thin electrical cable underneath the goal line and in the goal's frame that generates a magnetic field. A lightweight sensor (or sensors) in the ball detect when a certain amount of the ball has passed this defined line.

In soccer, the whole 8.7-inch (22-centimeter) ball must cross the line for a goal. So the sensor signals a score when it is 4.3 inches (11 centimeters) past the line, indicating that the entire ball is in, explained Oliver Braun, the marketing and communications director for Cairos.

In football, though, only a portion of the oblong ball needs to cross the plane (or be out of bounds), and first down lines can occur anywhere across the field of play.

So instead of wiring the whole field, YinzCam's approach places base stations along the sidelines that pick up a signal beamed by the football's sensor. A gyroscope in the ball's center also transmits precise knowledge of the pigskin's orientation in 3-D space in real-time.

Whether the long axis is nearly vertical in a place kick, or horizontal during a bullet pass from a quarterback, or anywhere in between (poking across the goal line), the referees will know.

The YinzCam sensor weighs just a half-ounce, lasts a half-hour and can be recharged wirelessly via inductive charging – the same technology that powers up an electric toothbrush. Referees would swap the sensor-containing footballs out for charged ones frequently. This shouldn't disrupt the game because footballs get rotated in and out of the game now anyway.

Although the NFL has not made any official statements on when this tech will kickoff, Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of operations, told TechNewsDaily: "It’s going to happen. It’s in the works."

Sensors all over

This remote-sensing technology could revolutionize more than just tough calls, said Narasimhan, who is founder and CEO of YinzCam. The company has also created pressure sensors for placement in players' gloves or pads. These "smart" gloves can detect how a receiver catches a pass, for example, or how a running back cradles the ball while dodging and dipping through gridiron traffic.

These sensors could boost practice and game-day assessments, Narasimhan said, at all levels of football, from high school on through the pros.

In the receiver's case, "coaches say you are supposed to catch the ball with your fingertips and not your thumbs," Narasimhan said. "After dropping a pass, a guy will come back to the sidelines and say, 'I swear it wasn’t my thumbs.'" With the gloves, coaches, players, scouts and even parents of pee-wee league players will have answers, and the receiver can work on improving his mechanics if necessary.

Futuristic helmets

Yet another application of sensors is gauging the blows to players' heads that might lead to concussions. Though mostly in the research phase, accelerometer-outfitted helmets already send hit intensity data to sideline medical staff that can indicate the possibility of a concussion.

Research has suggested that these re-engineered helmets, made by Riddell, the official helmet supplier for the NFL, might cut down on concussive events in high school by a third.

Individual susceptibly to concussions varies tremendously, however, so a 100 percent accurate "concussion sensor" for now remains science fiction.

The future of protective headgear in the NFL might lie with unconventional, non-foam padding, such as the adaptive air cell shock absorbers in the new X-1 helmet from Xenith. Air rushes in and out of these cells that adapt to impacts; a harder hit generates more air pressure, and therefore more stiffening to secure a player's head.

Vin Ferrara, Xenith CEO, likened the effect to pushing hard on a bike pump and getting more resistance than when softly depressing it.

Only a few NFL players wore the X-1 helmet last year, but this season at least 20 will, Ferrara said, and greater adoption is on the horizon.

Computerized play-calling

As with many other facets of life, computers stand to greatly change how football is played, at least from a play-calling perspective.

A software program called Zeus, though developed almost a decade ago, seems to be gaining traction now in the NFL, according to one of its creators, Frank Frigo.

Zeus simulates hundreds of thousands of game outcomes based on two play choices, for example, or can have two customizable teams play a million simulated games in the span of a minute.

Insights gleaned from Zeus include that NFL coaches call plays far too conservatively. For example, going for it on fourth down and short often increases the chances of ultimately winning over punting or settling for a field goal, and onside kicks should also be attempted more often.

No team has used, or under current rules would be allowed, to use Zeus in making snap game-day play calls. One team – Frigo cannot say who – did experiment with Zeus off the field last season.

The pre-game hints and post-game hindsight the program offers could usher in more aggressive strategies, Frigo said, if coaches could stomach statistical reality.

"You're not going to see [Zeus or simulators like it] during the game anytime soon," Frigo said. But Zeus-approved, bullish play-calling is on the rise, Frigo said.

Gutsy calls last season by head coaches Sean Payton of the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots reveal the growing awareness that in the NFL, fortune (and technology) often reward the bold.

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Adam Hadhazy
Adam Hadhazy is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He often writes about physics, psychology, animal behavior and story topics in general that explore the blurring line between today's science fiction and tomorrow's science fact. Adam has a Master of Arts degree from the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston College. When not squeezing in reruns of Star Trek, Adam likes hurling a Frisbee or dining on spicy food. You can check out more of his work at www.adamhadhazy.com.