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Satellite navigation on the rugby field

Just a few hours ago, paramedics stretchered 21-year-old rugby player Johann off the pitch. The fly-half had been hit at full speed by an imposing member of the other team during a friendly match and had momentarily lost consciousness.

Doctors were on standby at the hospital — they know the risks that players can face in such collisions — and Johann was seen immediately. Fortunately, the test results were clear and he's going to be OK.

The fact that the young player had been knocked out made the decision easy for the paramedics: he needed to be taken off the pitch straight away. But often, players who’re used to these physical impacts simply take the pain without realising the potential physiological implications. So it can be difficult for medical teams to know when a player needs to be substituted.

Research partnership between Thales, the FFR’s performance support department and ESA

Helping improve performance on the field while ensuring player safety are top priorities for the French Rugby Federation (FFR). In 2002, FFR set up an R&D unit, which is capturing and analysing data on player positions, speeds and heart rates at training sessions and matches. The position and speed measurements are derived from a GPS receiver fitted on each player’s back, between the shoulder blades.

Using this information, the R&D unit is trying to improve the way accidents are detected on the pitch and help safeguard players’ physical health. However, the accuracy of player positions and the quality of data transmission haven't always been up to the task, especially on match days.

A long-standing collaboration between Thales and the FFR Since 2010, the France squad has been training with a scrum simulator designed by Thales. The only system of its kind in the world, it can generate forces of several tonnes in any direction.

In September 2018, the FFR’s performance support department chose Thales to lead a research partnership to address these data accuracy and transmission issues. The European Space Agency (ESA), in charge of Europe’s Galileo navigation satellite system, is also involved.

The many sources of geolocation errors

In Toulouse, France’s rugby heartland, the engineers specialising in satellite navigation at Thales’s critical information systems and cybersecurity business have solid expertise in satellite geolocation. And they’ve gained a lot of experience through projects for space customers such as ESA and CNES, the French space agency.

To solve the issue for the FFR, the Toulouse team needed to understand exactly what was disrupting the satellite signal. In sports stadiums, there are several factors:

  • First, the tall vertical sides of the stadium partially obscure the signal. This is a common problem in cities with a lot of high-rise buildings, causing what’s called an urban canyon effect.
  • Second, signals can bounce off the stadium walls and get swamped by multipath errors, which also happens in narrow streets and tunnels.
  • And third, the signals transmitted by TV stations broadcasting the match and the mobile phones of tens of thousands of spectators in the terraces effectively disorientate the data transmissions from the player-worn devices.

In these conditions, achieving a high-quality signal is quite a challenge. And Thales engineers quickly realised they would need to get creative if they were going to overcome the problems.

Enter Geonav IoT

Over a period of several months, Thales engineers devised an innovative solution called Geonav IoT. They started by developing a high-precision positioning algorithm based on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS): primarily Europe’s Galileo, but also the American GPS, Chinese Beidu and Russian Glonass systems. As a result, signal availability is vastly improved.

To eliminate multipath errors and the urban canyon effect, they expanded the solution with an ultra-wideband (UWB) antenna network. At Thales’s request, specialist French company Sigfox has also provided access to its IoT network inside the Stade de France, France’s national stadium in Paris.

If the players' receivers aren’t picking up a stable satellite signal, the UWB antennas take over. As a result, Geonav IoT is able to track player positions in real time with a precision to within 1 metre, both inside and outside the stadium. The signal is available at all times, without interruption. It's a real winner!

The solution also uses the IoT network to alert medical teams if a player suffers a significant impact, so they can attend faster. Thanks to these alerts and the data captured by Geonav IoT, they’ll be better able to identify accidents and respond to injuries such as concussion. In the event of serious or repeated impacts, players can be pulled off the pitch so they can be examined by a doctor.

With the Geonav IoT solution from Thales, the French Rugby Federation now has accurate and dependable data on player positions, which is proving extremely valuable for improving their performance. Even more importantly, it’s making the game safer to help ensure that rugby remains the most popular of sports with players as well as fans!

Watch the video to know more about our solution