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Wireless Technology Tracks Football Even As Players Pile On

Researchers have demonstrated a way to accurately track a football's position without having to keep it in sight. Using "magneticoquasistatic" positioning, the ball can be located even when it's under half a dozen linebackers.

The bottom of such a pile is one of the few remaining places in football where things can't be observed and tracked — and also home to notoriously desperate struggles over the ball. Things tend to get rough when a few extra inches might make a first down or touchdown, especially when referees can't see what's happening.

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The modified ball with its outer skin removed. Disney Research

But by equipping the ball with a lightweight, low-frequency transmitter, its position can be triangulated quite accurately by a set of antennas placed around the field — even through the bodies of several players.

So if the ball makes it over the line while out of sight, the system can detect that and declare a touchdown — even if a well-placed knee were to knock it back before the dogpile is broken up.

The ball's position as estimated by the system is shown in orange, while a manual estimate is shown in yellow. Disney Research

This page describing the research has more details and a video showing a ball being tracked in real time.

The system is the result of a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, North Carolina State University and Disney Research, and the football tracker is just one of the applications the researchers have thought up.

The lightweight transmitters could be placed on players instead to track their speed and position, or on a remote vehicle operating outside its controller's line of sight.

Of course, football season is over for now — American football, that is. Could this tech find its way into soccer, the sport the rest of the world knows as football? It's doubtful: fans and teams are so obsessive about keeping the game true to its roots that including a chip and antenna in the ball would likely be considered sacrilege.