Zebra Technologies Partners with NFL to Track Player Movements

Football coaches at every level have long relied on game film to judge their teams’ performance. But this year, NFL teams have partnered with Zebra Technologies to more accurately track their players’ position and speed on the field.

The real-time location solution (RLTS) used by the NFL relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags worn by the players in their shoulder pads. Each RFID tag broadcasts its location 25 times per second to the approximately 20 receivers located around the stadium. From this single sensor, the MotionWorks server can determine a player’s location on the field and speed. By adding a second sensor, Zebra can also track a player’s direction and orientation. The sensors, placed on the player’s shoulder pads, are less than an inch in diameter, and include a battery designed to last an entire season. This improves the usability and scalability of the solution, since teams won’t need to spend time and energy removing, charging, and reinstalling the sensors.

The result is a system that can track all 22 players on a field with an accuracy of a few inches, according to Zebra’s data sheet. According to general manager for sports applications Eric Petrosinelli, this gives Zebra’s solution a clear advantage over other solutions based on technology like global positioning systems (GPS).

“Other solutions aren’t providing anywhere near the accuracy or operational simplicity of our solution,” Petrosinelli said. “They don’t really have scalable solutions.”

The NFL would seem to agree: Zebra won what Petrosinelli called a “bake-off” in 2013 among a number of vendors selling competing systems. Their reward was a multi-year contract with the NFL. As training camp was getting underway, the NFL announced that Zebra receivers would be placed in 17 NFL stadiums (specifically, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, New England, New Orleans, Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington) and added RFID tags to every player’s pads. Receivers will be installed in the remaining stadiums, as well as “one-off” stadiums like London’s Wembley Stadium and Pro Bowl site Aloha Stadium, during the offseason.

The data generated by the system is currently controlled by the league to prevent the handful of teams with the solution in place from gaining an unfair advantage from the data. A few teams — the 49ers, Lions, and Saints — will also have Zebra solutions installed at their practice facilities. But for now, teams and fans will have to be content with the samples like these that have been shown in the Thursday night games.

Although the MotionWorks solution may be new to the sports world, Zebra has developed and used similar RFID-based solutions for years in the manufacturing industry. But Petrosinelli said the technology adapted surprisingly well to the new application.

“One thing we’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the operational ease in deploying and operating the solution,” Petrosinelli said.

Zebra’s future plans include expanding vertically to other levels of football, as well as horizontally to other sports. Petrosinelli said his company was in talks with a number of organizations (though he couldn’t give their names) to apply Zebra’s technology to their fields.

“We’ve spoken to people both domestically and globally,” he said. “When you win a contract like [the NFL’s], a lot of people take notice of that.”

And while Petrosinelli said Zebra was considering partnering with other companies to incorporate data from sensors like accelerometers or heart rate monitors, the company currently has no plans to design such sensors internally.

“We’re not a consumer wearables company,” Petrosinelli said. “The way our system is designed, we could be a transporter of that information, but we’re not going to be in that business.”

Bryan Cole is a contributor to TechGraphs and a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.

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