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Could microchip technology change AFL score review systems?

AFL fans have long complained of its score review system being cumbersome and lengthy; yet a breakthrough could completely transform it through ball tracking technology.

The AFL has taken another significant step toward adopting microchip technology into footballs by beginning Phase Two of its trial of ball tracking innovation.

As part of its plan to introduce ball tracking in the AFL, this year has seen Sherrins being used to test microchip technology as part of an “incredibly significant” advancement for the game.

Already being utilised in the NFL and set to make its debut this month in world rugby, this technology holds great promise of providing clarity over controversial umpiring decisions, unique game analysis capabilities and real-time ball movement updates to enhance fans’ viewing experiences both at home and at stadiums.

Although AFL have seen promising test results to date, no set date or schedule have yet been given as to when this technology may feature in a match for premiership points.

Now on its sixth Sherrin prototype featuring microchip technology, the league conducted extensive lab testsCould microchip technology obliterate AFL score review systems as well as field trials with the Carlton Football Club during preseason last year.

Now the league is poised to start trialing technology across club training sessions next pre-season and could eventually test within games – perhaps initially within Coates Talent League or VFL games – within 2019.

But the AFL stated it will take its time in rolling out this technology into game, only when it was “ready and accurate”.

“Now in phase two or iteration two of our trial,” Laura Kane, Acting General Manager of Football Operations with the AFL explained, “we will begin disseminating it into training sessions and games more comprehensively.

“Currently we’re exploring various timelines. Each will take as long as necessary until it can be implemented into an actual competition game for points.”

“This event marks an historic first, as this marks the first time we’ve tracked and fitted footballs with RFID chips for real world use, as well as being our inaugural investigation of this form of technology in an meaningful context.

“We track everything else; cameras have been placed on goalposts to monitor movements around the pitch, while 16 broadcast angles offer various perspectives; unfortunately we do not yet track anything relocating around it.”

“International sports are taking notice, using technology in different sports in various ways – so we are excited to see what this can bring for us!”

The league has been working on microchip technology with UK tech company Sportable and manufacturer Gilbert to develop what has been termed as an intelligent rugby ball (or smart ball).

UK Sportable representatives recently visited Australia to assist with AFL testing of Sherrin both inside a laboratory environment and outside.

How Ball Tracking Microchips Work

Ball tracking technology encased within its bladder features a microchip which weighs and looks exactly the same as any Sherrin football.

Current balls only indicate technology with a very minor incision serving as access point to their microchip under one of their laces.

Damian Farrow, AFL umpires Coaching Performance and Innovation Manager said all the unique characteristics associated with Sherrin had been preserved during development of this ball.

“This toy football looks, smells and tastes just like its real counterpart and weighs the same,” Farrow reported.

“To put this into context, think of all those GPS units worn on back packs by players as analogies for how this ball uses similar technology in its bladder.”

As with GPS, this sensor includes gyroscopes and accelerometers which measure spin rate as well as distance traveled by an object, thus giving an estimate for their movement.”

Simply, this device consists of an extremely lightweight microchip or sensor placed inside of the bladder of a ball.

“Part of the engineering behind it is designed to ensure the ball continues its natural course; thus there is also a counter weight integrated to make sure everything behaves according to player expectations.”

Early prototypes of this ball featured a rubber stopper at its top to protect and hide away its data port, but that element has since been integrated and concealed within.

At first, the league experienced challenges keeping its ball inflated during initial tests but are confident these issues have since been overcome after an intensive year of development.

“Our players had difficulty keeping the balls inflated during practice and games,” Farrow observed.

“These players kick with more force than what might be expected from, for instance, rugby players.”

“Over time there have been various challenges faced and thus it has become an ongoing project to ensure it remains reliable and robust.

What will this add to the game?

Microchip technology has long been discussed as an answer to contentious umpiring decisions such as whether a ball has hit a post or was out-of-bounds.

But according to the league, its potential applications were wide ranging.

Technology like this also promises to enhance fans’ viewing experiences as it streamed live data collected from balls onto big screens or broadcast at home.

“What matters to us most is gaining insight from it about not just clubs and players but fans as well,” Kane stated.

“Whether in stadium or broadcast format, what information can we give fans in real-time about how long a torp is or where a set shot was directed at goal?”

“Some key metrics we would like to gain insight into include ball speed and congestion – specifically how many players are nearby the football or within its vicinity – as currently these metrics are assessed manually by our staff.”

“(This could tell us) how quickly things are moving. When people talk of fast footy games or quick brand of football, what exactly does that entail – how fast is football actually played?”

“That is precisely why we are excited: providing information directly to our fans in real time.”

Technology also holds promise to expand player and game analysis with information provided directly in training environments.

“[The system can assist with skill development], with coaches being able to give immediate feedback on what type of kick an individual player is practicing – providing new pieces of data not previously accessible,” Farrow noted.

“(When our players) were practicing kicking at Carlton training, they wanted to rush over to the laptop set up so they could check how far their kick was or who had made the longest kick – all things of importance in being competitive athletes.”

“Clubs love knowing who’s taking center bounces; now they will know which umpire has their signature bounce height!”

“They should think strategically when selecting their rucks; their selection could represent another tactical shift depending on what is discovered during play.

And umpires will also benefit from this technology.

“Our hope is that it will reduce some stress for umpires,” Farrow noted.

“(Umpires) can use it as another source of information when trying to decide if the ball hit or missed its mark; going over the top of a post presents challenges for umpires at present; so this tool may assist them.”

“Hopefully it will be positive.”

The AFL stated that information gained through technology would provide another layer to their existing ARC system used to review close decisions.

Originally published as AFL Explores Integration of Microchip Tracking Technology Into Footballs for Improved Tracking Capabilities Originally Published As

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