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French rugby to use wearable satnav devices to minimise concussion risk

Max Blenkin

Big Brother is surely watching over France’s rugby team, though not necessarily ensuring victory. Team members wear satellite navigation tracking devices between their shoulder blades to keeping tabs on their position and performance and to also help safeguard their health.

French rugby to use wearable satnav devices to minimise concussion risk
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The European Space Agency (ESA) said rugby was inherently highly physical and the sport was doing everything it could to ensure players did not play on while concussed.

The rule is that any player suspected of being concussed must leave the field and be tested.

However, often referees, medics and even the players themselves cannot tell when they have experienced sufficiently high-force impacts to pose head injury risks.

So, the French Rugby Federation’s Performance Support Department set up wearable GPS-equipped devices to track players’ positions, speed and physiological details such as heart rates.

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“These were useful in monitoring their performance and fatigue but in practice monitoring the movements of players could be patchy, especially on match days when they were needed most,” said ESA navigation engineer Nicolas Girault.

A new project called GEONAV set out to design an improved player monitoring system, ESA teamed up with Thales and the French Rugby Federation.

“The major issue was the surrounding environment itself – the stadium,” Girault said.

“These are typically half indoor, half outdoor locations. The extended roof blocks out views of many GPS satellites and some signals can reflect off its high walls.

Known as multipath, this can often lead to positioning errors.

“In addition, on match days there can be interference from TV signals and mobile/cellular networks, as well as the thousands of spectators carrying smartphones or other devices.”

The first element of the solution was to upgrade the satnav receivers to use multiple constellations.

Rather than the US GPS system alone, these now receive signals from Europe’s Galileo and, optionally, Russia’s Glonass and China’s BeiDou.

This produces tracking accuracy of less than a metre.

To prevent drop-outs when satnav is unavailable, an additional short-range high-precision ultra wide band network is used, based on beacons placed around the stadiums.

The wearable devices were also redesigned and miniaturised, down to roughly smartphone-size, incorporating accelerometers based on MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology. This is similar to systems in automobiles to trigger airbags.

The final challenge was to ensure that data from more devices could be reliably received and tracked simultaneously in real time.

The team harnessed two separate low power wide area networks, known as Sigfox and LoRa, normally employed for the internet of things (IoT) applications.
Sigfox send alerts on concussion while LoRa is used for continuous real-time communication.

“The FFR (French Rugby Federation) has tested out a prototype of this upgraded system during a Six Nations match and the whole solution will be further tested with some French national teams – junior, women, sevens…” Girault said.

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