Friday, April 10, 2015

Ireland now a world leader in wearable sports technology

A guest post by Brian Hayes MEP on the Irish involvement in the area of wearable sports technology, including some fascinating insights to the detailed information it provides for the Irish Rugby team and the provinces.

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Sport has a unique way to capture the imagination. The heart-stopping culmination to the 6 Nations Championship had all of us glued to every second of each game. Irish Rugby’s standing has been matched by our local businesses. 

Wearable technology is a fascinating area and when it comes to wearable tech in sports, Ireland is a world leader. The incredible advancements made by Irish firm STATSports have put Ireland into the spotlight when it comes to wearable technology. We should build on this. The EU’s Horizon 2020 funding for research and innovation gives Ireland the chance to draw down close to €1billion to develop the next advancement. Great opportunities now exist and should be seized.

Speaking at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce conference in the shadow of the Aviva Stadium the Friday before the Ireland vs. England game Aongus Hegarty of Dell highlighted the “wearable tech” that both Ireland and England would be wearing on the pitch. The information gathered by a gadget worn by rugby players now is truly jaw-dropping. It is not just about what distance they covered, the tiny black box can tell what g-force a player experiences, skin temperature along with respiratory and fatigue levels - all in real-time. We’ve all noticed the slight bulge between the shoulder blades of players under their jerseys and the laptops lighting up the faces of the coaching staff, but what is being monitored so closely and why?

The little black box or “pod” gathering the data is roughly 10cm tall, 3 cm wide and about 2cm thick. It is light too, weighing less than half of a smart phone at only 50g. Yet the array of sensors packed into it is truly astonishing. They include 3-D gyroscopes, 3-D accelerometer, 3-D compass, heart rate monitors, long range radios and GPS. But it is the software developed to translate the data into usable information that is the real advance. The data being pumped out covers a huge range of metrics. Distance covered, meters per minute, acceleration and deceleration rate, impact, maximum heart rate, energy expenditure and top speed to name but a few.

Mathematical algorithms are used to determine fatigue levels. Complex maths uses different data to deliver a fatigue figure for each player. This is a real game changer when it comes to deciding when to change a front row player, for example. These can be personally tailored to each player using data gathered over previous games or the previous week’s training as a benchmark. The software also gauges the “load levels” a player is experiencing during training or during the match itself. Again this is where the software comes into its own, “load” can be determined by looking at different indicators. One is the number of high intensity meters covered. This can be different for a forward or a back, but typically it would measure the number of meters covered above 15kph.

The number of sprints a player makes in training can be a key factor in a coach deciding if a player is fresh for a game. The software takes advantage of the aerial perspective offered by GPS, showing the area that is covered by the positioning of the back three. The GPS information is accurate up to 10cm. The software offers real tactical analysis. This makes the wearable tech not just a strength and conditioning tool but also an aid to all the coaching staff.

What fascinated me the most was that the pod can also tell the coaching staff the weight being loaded onto each of a player's legs. If there is a 10-15% differential between the two it could indicate that a player is suffering from a minor issue and prevent an injury. This measure is also used in the recovery process to see if a player is favouring their good leg or if they are fully fit. The information is also used proactively. The software can group players into positions, squads or training groups with targets set for training and matches.

The pods worn by the England and Ireland squads in that epic clash in the Aviva were made by an Irish company called STATSports. STATSports was started in 2007 by Sean O’Connor and Alan Clarke. Their first major client was Leinster Rugby in 2009. After Leinster won that year’s Heineken Cup, major teams came calling and they grew from there. Their client list now reads like a who’s who of global sports megastars. The Chicago Bulls, Manchester United, RFU, Barcelona FC, the Cincinnati Bengals, Juventus, Arsenal, IRFU, Liverpool, Auckland Blues, Bayer Leverkusen, Leicester Tigers and the national soccer teams of England, Ireland, Wales, Poland and Croatia. That’s only the first page and excludes the Irish interest of Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Donegal GAA. Team Ireland are winning on and off the pitch.

Brian Hayes is a Leinster Fan and MEP for Dublin
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