First and Tech
Pro football teams seek an edge through tools mastered by the military
Before pro football teams were using GPS, virtual reality and data analytics to fix their formations and predict the other team’s next move, those technologies were helping members of the military find their way in the field and train for battle.
Quarterbacks including Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston are well-known users of virtual reality, donning headsets after practices to analyze the motion and timing of their offense, adjust to the speed of the defense and critique their own throwing technique. And for several seasons, pro football has been using GPS to track the movement of the ball and the players – data with far-reaching implications including the prevention of injuries and analysis of how well referees are doing their jobs.
Raytheon provides similar technologies – GPS, augmented reality, data analytics – to the United States military and other government agencies. Those tools help troops find friendly forces, train technicians before they deploy in theater and interpret reams of information to advise commanders on the battlefield.
“Big data success, like a big football play, requires teamwork, preparation, and the right fundamentals,” said David McCoy, a big-data scientist at Raytheon. “At Raytheon, we build teams with experts in both data science and customer domain knowledge from all over the U.S.”
Tracking the play using GPS
GPS sensors are smaller than ever, and for the past several seasons have been embedded in footballs as well as players’ protective gear. As GPS continues to improve, tracking the exact movement of players on every snap could provide insight on how fast they move, where and how injuries occur, and even spot subtle differences in how running backs carry the ball.
The U.S. military pioneered GPS technology – at first using it for basic navigation, and now adopting it for applications including weapons guidance, reconnaissance and target tracking. In combat, the reliability of GPS and the knowledge of how to use it can mean the difference between the success or failure of a mission. In football, it could lead to new strategies for protecting players.
But first, league officials would have to know what all that data is really telling them.
Playing a Numbers' Game
Professional sports have always used statistics to advance the game, but modern data analytics has taken that idea further – more sources of information, more tools to process it, and, ultimately, better insight as a result.
A quarterback, for example, might have a huge game, throwing 300 yards to multiple receivers and backs. Every play is broken down into numbers and loaded into databases for franchise owners, sideline coaches and fantasy football fanatics to pore over.
Military agencies do something similar with training. Using video, laser radar sensors and other technologies, they can track a combat team’s every move during a field training exercise and critique its performance afterward. Analytics can also be used to study and predict the actions of opposing forces.
“We can analyze the enemy and build a playbook on them, and calculate the probability of what they will do under certain circumstances and conditions,” said Peter Stewart, a Raytheon systems architect. “For example, we can predict that the enemy has 80 percent chance of taking this route or a 70 percent chance of attacking this target. Using big data in football is similar; just change the word ‘enemy’ with ‘opposing team.’ Analytics can tell a coach that the other team has an 85 percent chance of running a certain play or 60 percent chance of passing a ball to this player.”
Virtual defenses build strong offenses
Many players fresh out of college have trouble keeping up with the pro game’s fast pace. So, teams are turning to virtual reality to get their rookies up to speed. Quarterbacks, for example, wear special cameras during practice. Then, rather than watching sideline video with the whole team, they can review the session from their exact point of view, essentially reliving it through a virtual-reality headset.
In the military, virtual reality and augmented reality have already proven invaluable as training tools. With virtual reality, technicians can practice working on computer-generated replicas of the systems they will service in the field. And with augmented reality – basically, images superimposed over real life – a technician can look at an actual object through a tablet computer and watch step-by-step instructions on how to make a repair.
Much like how a running back might learn the playbook with a VR headset or virtually testing an opponent’s defensive formations against offensive plays, the military is using the technology to practice battlefield operations.
“The U.S. military is now using augmented reality to conduct very realistic, pre-mission rehearsals,” said Mark Bigham, Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services chief innovation officer. “When a soldier steps out on their field of play, they have to count on the intel and that model they trained on as being 100 percent accurate. In a football game, a serious mistake might cost you a 15-yard penalty. A mistake in combat has grave consequences. Just like in football, you want to get in as many reps as you can before game day. In the military, a squad wants to practice kicking down the door and storming a room with automatic weapons a hundred times. To them, it’s not a game. It’s life or death.”
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