England captain Dylan Hartley being stretchered off the pitch

Sports technology: Making Rugby Safer

Rugby is a hard, heavy contact sport, but technology is being used to help make it safer.

This summer will see the return of rugby to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1924, albeit in the form of rugby sevens (little-known fact: the USA is the most successful nation in Olympic rugby, having won the gold medal at the 1920 and 1924 events).

The sport has recently been making the headlines due to increases in injuries, which is hardly surprising as players get fitter and faster so that a hard tackle has some serious force behind it. Research has shown that a head-on tackle between two professional 100kg wingers can have the same impact as a 40mph car crash.

The latest attempt to measure and protect against serious impacts in rugby and other high-impact sports such as American football comes from Edinburgh firm Sansible Wearables.

Sansible’s LiveSkin system, which will be part of the Internet of Things, uses lightweight, unobtrusive, high-tech shoulder pads that allow players and coaches to monitor the forces experienced during tackles, track statistics across high-energy-cost events and recognise abnormal patterns. The sensing elements are integrated into training vests or compression tops and are designed to be soft and comfortable so players barely notice them. In particular, the system helps to prevent shoulder injuries, which are those most commonly incurred in rugby.

Using direct measurements of force loads sustained by a player’s muscle groups, information such as the rate of force development and fatigue is trackable in real time during a game as well as in training drills.

The metrics are transferred to an app from which easy comparisons with a player’s game and training history are possible, allowing users to see how they have performed. Importantly, the system can also recognise if a player has fully recovered from an injury.

Jack Ng, the company CEO, is a specialist in micro-electrical systems and has developed LiveSkin along with business partner Charlie Patterson. He says that he is currently in discussion with two top-flight UK-based rugby union clubs that are interested in using the system.

“The micro-electro­mechanical systems that are used in LiveSkin allow players to train more efficiently, especially after injury, as well as obtaining an accurate indication of the load demands of a game and enabling comparisons with other players who play in the same position,” he explains.

Ng says the system offers high accuracy and measures a wide dynamic range of collision forces. The direction of the force applied to players is also captured, and data is presented as a timeline that can be easily accessed in real time on a mobile, tablet or laptop. Raw data can also be exported to integrate with a team’s data scientists’ existing tools.

The LiveSkin system records impact forces directly at the point of impact, whereas other systems currently in use rely on, for example, a box worn on the back, which can only provide an estimation of collision forces.

“LiveSkin will be an invaluable training tool for strength and conditioning as well as injury recovery monitoring. It has the big advantage of being able to be worn in the field and is not limited to an isolated environment such as a lab or gym,” says Ng.

He also points out that while he sees the system as helping to reduce injuries at the elite level as well as assisting physios and coaches, the company is keen to get more young people engaged in the sport, particularly given the negative exposure it has had lately in terms of injury risk. Devices such as LiveSkin should make the game safer and thus more attractive to novices, he says. At this early stage, Ng is very reluctant to expand upon the technical features of the device, citing concerns about competition, but it’s safe to assume that if it is attracting the attention of elite level rugby union teams, it has much to offer.

Australian company Catapult’s OptimEye S5 athlete-tracking device also measures impact forces in tackles and collisions. Based on a satnav receiver, it collects thousands of points of data which are then used to measure player movement and fatigue and help prevent injuries. High-profile clients include numerous elite rugby teams around the world, Italian football giants AC Milan, NFL team Dallas Cowboys and NBA champions the Golden State Warriors. Other sports that have used the system include Gaelic football, mountain biking, surfing, taekwondo and even bull riding.

The device is worn on the outside of a player’s jersey and with its associated ‘Openfield’ software can provide a biomechanical analysis of impact forces, turn rates and orientation, along with tackle identification and the breakdown of movement into forwards, backwards and sideways running.

This data can be transmitted wirelessly to coaches and team doctors for instant analysis. As well as measuring the effect of heavy impacts such as tackles it can also, for instance, provide a key to foreseeing and preventing player heart failure.

The OptimEye S5 uses the latest fifth generation 10Hz GNSS engine, which will pick up Russia’s Glonass satellite constellation as well as GPS, allowing greater positional accuracy of complex athletic movements missed by lower specification units.

It uses three-axis configurable100Hz 2-16g accelerometers to measure linear motion, impact forces, acceleration and deceleration, three-axis configurable 200-2,000 degrees per second gyroscopes to measure angular motion and rotation allowing accurate classification of specific movement patterns, and three-axis 100Hz magnetometers to measure direction and orientation.

Roy Headey, head of sports science at the Rugby Football Union, says: “A critical piece of information [for us] relates to the external loads - visible but virtually impossible to estimate - that players experience during games. These include distances run at various speeds, muscular effort in accelerating, decelerating, changing direction and G-forces in collisions, and GPS is currently the best available vehicle for capturing such data.”

Another piece of wearable tech, this time for cardiac monitoring, is the Polar heart rate belt. This comes with optional ANT connectivity for connection with peripheral devices, and the system uses monolithic electronics for better durability in contact sports, while ultrafast wireless reporting means no downloading of units is required.

Concussion is also a serious concern within rugby. Seattle-?based X2 Biosystems’ X-Patch wearable head impact sensors are used by the Saracens Premiership rugby team and numerous NFL football teams. The lightweight unit is worn behind the ear to record the force and angle of impact to the head.

The device is attached using a small adhesive strip, with the sensor recording head impacts and sending the data via Bluetooth to the Impact Management System (IMS) app on a tablet for instant viewing and immediate action. The X2 ICE app allows baseline testing and post-impact assessments of the user’s neurocognitive performance, along with documentation of remove-from-activity decisions, recovery and return-to-activity readiness.

Dr Stan Herring, chair of the X2 medical advisory board and member of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee as well as team physician to various NFL teams, says: “By immediately informing the sideline staff of head impact events on the field, and by providing SCAT2-based sideline concussion assessment tools, the X2 system supports improved outcomes of player brain health working in concert with the existing standard of care.

“The data we collect provides immediate utility to trainers, coaches, and physicians right now and will be invaluable in supporting the future research that will revolutionise our understanding of this injury.”

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